Return to California - some Central Coast discoveries
For UK consumers tucking into a bottle of wine from California’s Central Coast, chances are that it will be from Monterey County, lying just south of San Francisco. Home to 175 vineyards, many of which specialise in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this region includes such producers as Jekel which have made a name for themselves producing quality inexpensive wine.
However as I discovered on a recent tour, the real action in the Golden State is taking place further south, in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Some 20 years ago I toured both sub-regions: wine-making was very much a boutique activity with tastings offered free, mainly to those passing through on their way to Sonoma and Napa. Paso Robles, though not without charm, was a nowhere town for wine-lovers.
Today, things look very different: professional, ambitious producers are using a variety of grapes to get the best from a warm, sunny climate, with the number of wineries reaching levels that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. San Luis Obispo County boasts some 212 and Santa Barbara around 100, with more added every year though the economic crisis has slowed growth. The focus in both (and particularly Santa Barbara) remains fairly small-scale with almost all wineries running wine clubs, giving benefits (such as events and discounts) to secure customer loyalty. However Steve Lohr of J.Lohr Wines – which has been making wines in Paso Robles since 1989 and is this region’s biggest producer, making good wines at fair prices– says the growth is easily explained.
“Whilst Santa Barbara’s climate and soils have proven ideal for Burgundian varieties, Paso Robles is ideal for both Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. There are not many places in the world that offer such variety within such a short distance, ” he argues. Wine-makers emphasise that as well as proximity to the sea, the region in summer months regularly experiences the biggest diurnal change in temperature in the mainland US - from 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to 60 or so at night.
Particularly in Santa Barbara – which is only 70 minutes drive from Los Angeles, reflected in its high land prices – the focus is on high-end wines often made in tiny volumes, for which producers are unafraid to charge upwards of $60 a bottle. Typical customers are wealthy Los Angelenos out for a fun weekend of tasting and to replenish their wine racks with bottles unavailable at their local Trader Joes.
This region is a big hit with fans of “Sideways.” The Fess Parker tasting room is where Miles famously downs a spit bucket in frustration at having had his book rejected (although former actor Fess Parker himself demanded the filmmakers change the winery’s name). The restaurant where Miles and Jack have their double date? That’s the trendy Los Olivos Café in the heart of Los Olivos, the boutiquey, Napa-like one street village at the heart of this region. There are so many tasting rooms here I lost count; if you can only visit two, Qupe and Epiphany are recommended, along with the wine shop of the Fess Parker Inn, which has a wide regional range.
Sideways did much to raise the profile of Pinot Noir – which along with Burgundy’s other famous varietal Chardonnay grows well here – and to lower that of Merlot, which is planted here even less than it was back in 2004 when the movie was made. The extent to which Pinot has come can be seen along scenic Santa Rosa Drive, where many producers now make high quality Pinot at eye-watering prices.
But it is Foxen Canyon Drive that lies the heart of the Santa Barbara region. It’s a must do, both for its scenic appeal and because the best wineries run along it. As well as Fess Parker – their Syrah is excellent, with lots of dark berry fruit and a lovely lingering finish, whilst their newly launched Rieslings (a dry and a semi-sweet) are also worth trying – I called in at Foxen and Zaca Mesa. The latter is one of the earliest producers here, specialising in Rhone varietals, committed to sustainable winemaking; it still makes just 30,000 cases. The standout for me here was the 2009 Estate Rousanne – with lots of lovely creamy peach and white fruit flavours – whilst amongst the reds, the 2010 Mouvedre was enticingly dark and spicy. Foxen I found less interesting despite its determination to do interesting things with Chenin Blanc, and its continuing focus on Italian varietals: the 2010 Syrah was the best wine to my taste, although not particularly cheap at $48.
Further north, the feel of San Luis Obispo Country – specifically, Paso Robles, where the better known wineries are located – is very different: less boutiquey and more experimental, in other words, less Sideways, more Bottle Shock. Certainly, winemakers are keen to demonstrate that anything the French can do they can do better and the very different terroir south and west versus east makes this a fascinating place to try.
Indeed Paso Robles is fast becoming a mecca for wine-makers keen to experiment with varieties and blends that their counterparts in, say, Sonoma, wouldn’t touch. Pricing reflects low volume but also ambition: the dramatic terraced slopes of L’Aventure, developed over the last 13 years by owner Stephan Asseo, contain a multitude of varieties with his best wines containing Cab Sav and Syrah, something he could never legally do of course in his native St Emilion. Try the excellent flagship Estate Cuvee ($85): a blend of Cab Sav, Syrah and Petite Verdot, it is delicious with lots of rich, dark and red berry fruit but also lots of complexity and structure, which means it will age wonderfully.
Down the road, Peachy Canyon is well-regarded for its well-made, well-priced wines – the zingy, fruit-driven concrete-tank fermented Viognier is a steal at $20, as is the moreish Chardonnay. Peachy’s cheery winemaker Terry Culton specialises in Zinfandel, making four single vineyard Zins on top of the regular Westside Zinfandel. Each are $38 a bottle and quite distinct, although for my taste-buds the Old Bailey Zinfandel 2010 and the Vortex Zinfandel 2010 are the most rewarding, with lots of structure and firm tannins supporting the fruit.
A complete contrast is beautifully located Tablas Creek, which since its first vintage back in 1999 has wowed Rhone-lovers.
“It was the goal of founder Robert Haas that this winery would grow all 13 varietals used in Chateauneuf du Pape and we have now achieved that,” says chief winemaker Neil Collins. A dedication to authenticity means that all of the wines here are worthwhile, with the flagships Espirit de Beaccastel Blanc 2010 – containing Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc – and Rouge (Mouvedre, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Counoise) both well-worth their respective $40 and $55.
The following day I visited two more, very different wineries, both in the flat, sandy-limestone area east of Paso Robles. The first – Villa San-Juliette - is owned by the two Brits who started American Idol and other TV reality shows. Although the new tasting room and public area suggest the glitz of reality TV, the wines here show much better than you might expect – and certainly have more restraint and balance than American Idol. The Malbec 2009 and the Petit Verdot 2010 are the stand-outs, both very full, rich and sumptuous, although the fruity but full 2010 Grenache is also very enjoyable. Winemaker Matt Ortman may have just arrived but he – like the owners, who make the two hours-plus drive here from Hollywood most weekend – has ambitious plans. These include doubling output to 50,000 cases over the next five years and – shades of Sideways - pulling up old Merlot vines to plant something “more interesting”. Given that VSJ makes an excellent Albarino, a light, very accessible Pinot Gris and also a block-busting Petite Sirah, I expect more experimentation. After all, this is why Paso Robles is such an exciting place to visit. It isn’t often that you get to see a wine region building itself up out of nothing and doing what its winemakers think works and tastes best rather than following a rulebook. Steve Lohr - pictured below with a selection of his winery's Paso Robles wines - suggests this place has a great future. It would be hard to disagree.
Seductive South Africa
Some 18 years after the fall of apartheid, South Africa - blessed with glorious weather and scenery - is generally viewed as an exciting, hip destination, moving in the right direction. Not so its wine industry. After a flurry of activity in the late 1990s-early 2000s, when wineries rushed to invest and export - following the removal of the KWV export monopoly - and were aided by strong consumer interest and a weak Rand, the industry seems today to be at a cross-roads, with critics suggesting it has lost its way.
On the plus side, consumers have a more nuanced view of South African wine - recognising it amounts to more than Chenin Blanc and earthy, "muddy" Pinotage and the cheap supermarket brands that once seemed to be a staple of Asda's Three for £10 range. Also positive is the fact that although acreage under vine is falling slightly (although regions beyond traditional Cape wine country have been boosting output) quality has never been better or the wines more exciting.
According to Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA) the industry body responsible for the past 14 years for promotion, the country's weather, terrain and highly diverse soil types makes it a "paradise for winemakers," particularly those keen to experiment with different varieties and styles.
"Within the Cape Town region there is more bio-diversity than in the whole of northern Europe.there is also a huge diversity of soil types within a relatively small area," she says.
This and still relatively cheap labour - although wages have been rising, with most wineries committed to providing good living standards for their workers, they are still lower than most wine producing nations - gives South Africa a unique advantage.
"Because of the lack of plentiful water supplies, this is an expensive country to make cheap wine. However it a very cheap country to make good quality wines," says Birch.
Which explains why WOSA - and most South African wineries I visited - are keen to stress that the days of chasing Chile or Australia at the lower end of the market are long passed. Many wineries have given up on supplying the ultra-tough UK supermarkets altogether, tired of the constant demands for discounts which meant many were actually selling their wines for less in the UK than South Africa - despite the UK's swingeing import and excise duties. These include Spier and Diemersfontein which are now focusing purely on the on-trade market, whilst Fairview's well-regarded Goats Do Roam brand has been supplanted in UK shops by the newer, more one-dimensional but still serviceable La Capra label.
I visited some 12 wineries across Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek over 8 days and would have done more had time - and kids - allowed. My overall impression is that the industry is on the right track in its efforts to redefine itself: the focus is diversity and quality at a reasonable price, with winemakers generally unafraid to experiment, but at the same time finding their niche.
Some well-known names are sticking with what works best: in this regard, Kanonkop springs to mind, with its well-structured Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon: the high end Bordeaux blend Paul Sauer sells out every year. This winery - which many years ago gave up on white wine altogether because it felt the results were not consistent enough - recently launched its first new wine for 40 years, a pink Pinotage, in its cheaper but still very decent Kadette range.
Cabernet-focused Warwick - famous for Trilogy, its sound, layered Bordeaux-blend and Three Cape Ladies (an equal blend in the 2008 vintage of Pinotage, Shiraz and Cabernet), is given a boost in the latest James Bond novel Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver. This is another example of a winery that knows where it's going; the reds, in particular, are excellent.
Franschoek's La Motte which has increased production ten-fold over the last decade, focusing on Bordeaux varietals and blends. These wines I found to be very well made - sound, in a word - owner Hans Koegelenberg's almost sober emphasis on quality probably being emphasised to distinguish the wines from his easier-drinking venture next door, Leopard's Leap. La Motte's two high end wines - the 2009 Pierneef Shiraz Viognier and the Pierneef Shiraz Grenache - were both faultless: very smooth with soft tannins making for rounded full bodied wines. For me the latter of these, comprising 29% Grenache, 14% Mouvedre and a tiny dollop of Carignan, was the most intriguing, with warm spice and game notes adding to the mix.
Another family producer, but one which seems to be keener to experiment is Delheim, actually one of the very first wineries to join the Stellenbosch wine route some 40 years ago. The Spurling family still makes some sound Shiraz and Cabernet but for me the biggest revelations at their tasting was their zesty Gewürztraminer and their nicely-oaked, fruity but sophisticated Chardonnay Sur Lie 2010.
Other, newer wineries are forging ahead unconcerned by the image problems that clearly still rattle some producers. I had only one serious disappointment: Boschendal, one of the most historic and beautiful South African estates, sold nine year ago by Anglo American and now part of DGB, is still very much a place to visit, explore and picnic. But its wines for my palate were unremarkable and formulaic, suggesting a change of strategy here may be necessary.
So which wineries were the most interesting?
Spier has been through something of a transformation since my last visit some years back. Winemaker Frans Smit has been at the forefront of the move upmarket and his limited release, pricey (around £60 a bottle) multi-varietal flagship Frans K Smit fully reflects his attention to detail. This really is a very decent full-bodied expression of the various terroirs in and around this winery but not surprisingly is made in tiny quantities.
"As a winemaker over a lifetime you have, what, maybe 30 vintages in you. It is important to pay close attention and make sure you get everything right," he says.
Frans Smit, winemaker at Spier
Smit is doing this across the Spier range starting with the Signature series (though at around £8 a bottle this is a far cry from the days Spier used to work with Asda at the very cheap end of the market). Particularly notable is the Signature Chenin Blanc 2011, unwooded and just 12.5% despite being made with grapes from the intensely hot Swartland region: this is a very more-ish wine, with lots of character and zest. Also good is the uncomplicated and approachable Signature Chardonnay 2011 which has lots of fresh citrus on the palate but also lots of tropical flavours. At the other end of the scale, the up-scale 21 Gables range - named after the historic structures still found on the wine estate - focus on South Africa's two most famous native grapes. The 2009 Pinotage is a new style wine made using cooler climate vineyard blocks and thus eschews the heavier, oakier style beloved of Pinotage traditionalists. Pleasant enough and with good ageing potential but I preferred Smit's upmarket take on Chenin Blanc: the 21 Gables 2010 Chenin Blanc uses new French oak to add character and structure to the grape and works very well, producing a sophisticated full bodied food wine.
Mention must be made of Spier's Creative Block wines, 2 - the 2011 comprising 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon - 3, 2009 a delicious, well-integrated SMV - and 5, also 2009, a Cabernet-dominated Bordeaux blend. Numbers 2 and 3 were most interesting, with the Semillon in 2 giving character, depth and backbone to the Sauvignon, whilst the sturdy Shiraz in 3 given add complexity by the Mouvedre and Viognier making this a good wine to savour on its own as well as with food.
Fairview has also been working on its strengths.
Again, much has changed since my last visit. The visitor area is huge, comprising a vast new tasting area, a restaurant and shop highlighting not just the wide range of wines (the eponymous Fairview range, La Capra and Goats do Roam) but also the excellent cheeses and olive oils made by Charles Back's growing empire. Back also bought the next door winery (formerly Seidelberg) to showcase his hefty Spice Route wines, made in Swartland, which Back wishes to insulate from the core Fairview/Goats do Roam brands.
The wines here are as ever excellent, and my tasting confirmed that Fairview make some of the most exciting wines in South Africa. Who else would make a 100% Carignan (an unfashionable grape most use for blending) or a 100% Mouvedre (the grapes grown for Back's Spice Route Mouvedre in Swartland represent the largest planting on the continent). True to form, Fairview have two new and on first tasting rather exciting wines on the way: a 100% Durif (full of dark red fruit and warm, leather tannins) and a new blend Forestera combining Tempranillo, Grenache and Carignan. These wines should be available later this year.
Here's looking at you Kid: Goats really do Roam at Fairview
The most striking thing about Tokara is its futuristic design, suggesting the Death Valley house that explodes multiple times at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 movie Zabriskie. The location - on the pass between Stellebosch and Franschoek - also takes some beating, with stunning views from the glass-fronted tasting room, suggesting that the millions spent by banker-owner GT Ferriera on this state of the art winery have not been wasted. However it would be remiss not to mention the wines which in the capable hands of winemaker Miles Mossop are flourishing. It was fascinating to contrast and compare Tokara's two Chardonnays - a Walker Bay 2009 and a Stellenbosch 2010; both very well made but quite distinct, the former for me had the edge, with lovely floral flavours and delicate balance reflecting the cooler climate of this region. Also noteworthy is the 2007 Director's Reserve, an elaborate but well-structured blend of 60% Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec, which spent some 25 months in barrel before bottling. Mossop's own wines - named after his three kids and made here - are also pretty good, especially Max, a smooth, easier drinking more rustic-style Bordeaux blend.
Rickety Bridge was something of a surprise for me, not least because of all the wineries visited on this trip, it was the only one of which I had not heard. The charming and appropriately named Wynand Grobler has been winning numerous accolades for his Cabernets, especially the flagship Bridge (made in tiny quantities, in part from Bush Vines) and the very solid Paulina's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. But Grobler has expanded the range since taking over. Amongst the portfolio are two intriguing Semillon (one in the superior, Paulina's Reserve range), a delicious, well-balanced Chardonnay (albeit made in small amounts). There were also two very decent contrasting Chenin Blancs (the more expensive, the Paulina's Reserve, was left on the lees for five months, with 30% of the wine then barrel fermented and left to age for five months in French oak casks).
Rickety Bridge's Wynard Grobler
Less exciting though very much worth a visit was Groot Constantia, the grande dame of South African wineries. Unlike Boschendal, the focus has remained on quality despite - or maybe because of - the winery's unusual ownership status: it is run commercially via a trust with all profits ploughed back into the business. The most noteworthy whites here were the Governor's Reserve 2010 - a well constructed blend of 87% Semilion and 13% Sauvignon Blanc - and the Governor's Chardonnay 2010 with nice vanilla flavours balancing the plentiful fruit, reflecting the 9 months in new French oak. Amongst reds, although most praise here usually goes towards the Governor's Reserve - the 2009 is a well-blanced blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. However I found the Shiraz excellent: the 2010 is quite young but with lots of pepper and spice on both nose and palate, whilst the 2009 sulphur-free Shiraz is a joy, with lots of concentrated fruit and good structure.
So what does my brief but nonetheless highly instructive tour of the Cape tell me?
"Quality and diversity have been rising throughout the industry and this will continue - this is an exciting place to make wine and that is reflected on what ends up in the bottle," says WOSA's Birch.
I would have to agree. Ignore those who say South African wines are losing their edge and focus. In an increasingly uniform, homogenised world, winemakers here are striving for individualism and to marry tradition with modernity. The results are impressive.
Spier wines can be bought through www.plb.co.uk, Fairview via www.liberty.co.uk, Rickety Bridge via www.kingsland-wines.com and Delheim via the Wine Society. Most of the wines mentioned can also be bought through www.sawinesonline.co.uk.
Meet a nice South African
Before 1994 buying South African was an easy albeit politically incorrect process: you chose one of the varietals or blends offered by KWV, the only winery allowed an export licence, and ignored the disapproving looks of your more PC friends.
Today, South Africa under its controversial new president Jacob Zuma, is beloved of liberals. Better news for wine lovers is the fact the industry is booming, with the recent weakness of the Rand making life a bit easier for exporters who had to suffer an overvalued exchange rate for many of the past few years. Hundreds of wine estates in five main wine regions (and 21 wine of origin production areas) streching over a vast area in excess of 800 kilometres offer everything from Pinot Noir to Viognier, with many increasingly available throughout Europe. Countries such as the Netherlands and Germany offer some very decent examples at excellent prices, whilst Britain - the largest export market, accounting for some 28% of exports - offers the widest range. Quality is improving by the year, with winemakers becoming incraesingly adventurous, especially with so-called Cape Blends, red wines generally incorporating a large proportion of pinotage, the country's signature grape. White blends - once relatively rare here - are also on the up, with sauvignon blanc - the grape local winemakers dub "white gold" on account of its popularity - and chenin blanc, traditionally the most planted white variety, often involved. But with so many wineries promising so much, where to start?
Red lovers who like their wine fat and meaty should consider Cape blends, which make for some fascinating, heady tasting. (14.5-15% is not unusual). Otherwise try straight Pinotage, though the strange spiciness of South Africa’s traditional red (a cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage or cinsault) may put some off; Pinot Noir from the Walker Bay region is generally excellent, with Hamilton Russell, Sumaridge and Bouchard Findlayson providing excellent examples. For white wine, South Africa has always offered great Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, although the current craze is for Sauvignon Blanc. Viogner is generally excellent but due to the length of time the grapes are left on the vine generally very high in alcohol (Bellingham’s The Maverick is a good example, as is Graham Beck’s monster 16% example).
Although – obviously – vintages differ, wines from the following estates are worth looking out for at your local wine-store, though no substitute for tasting them in situ.
- Backsburg: If the Pumphouse Shiraz 2004 comes your way, grab some. Good Pinotage too.
- Boschendal: The grandest and largest estate in the Cape is renowned for its Grand Reserve Blend – and is an excellent place to picnic under the trees - though in recent years other wines have been under-whelming.
- Bouchard Finlayson: Some excellent wines from this long-established Walker Bay-Hermanus winery. Try in particular the delicious Galpin Peak pinot noir - which just seems to get better with each vintage - and the creamy, nicely-oaked Crocodile's Lair Chardonnay.
- Fairview: Wine heaven. Although best known for its value Goats range – a play on the goats kept on site and Cotes de Rhone (hence Goats do Roam and Goats do Roam in Villages) - this first rate winery simply turns out some of South Africa’s best wines. Try the up-market Spice Route range and the flagship Jakkalsfontein Shiraz. Wine-maker Charles Back has also done interesting things with lesser-used grapes such as Carignan and Barbera.
- Glen Carlou: Some interesting red blends.
- Graham Beck: Almost everything made by winemaker Charles Hopkins is worth trying; most notable are The Ridge Shiraz, the Old Road Pinotage and the Sauvignon Blancs.
- Groot Constantia: South Africa’s first winery was established in 1685 and still makes excellent wines, although visiting the gloriously maintained estate makes them taste even better.
- Klein Constantia: Next door, Adam Mason has been turning out some fine Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, although the renowned Vin de Constance is still the big draw.
- Hamilton Russell: Anthony HR, a former banker in the City of London, took over his father’s Walker Bay estate a few years ago. He makes only two wines under his own label – a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir – but what wines!
- Spier: The wines are pretty good, but this large estate’s main claim to fame is that it has something for everybody: an excellent hotel, a choice of dining options, a play area and even some cheetahs to reward the kids for their patience during your sampling. The new upmarket range is generally good, revealing te winery's determination to break away from its former cheap and cheerful image.
- Stellenzicht: Their excellent Shiraz and some interesting and tasty blends make this a worthy stop.
- Vergelegen: South Africa’s oldest and most beautiful winery, in Somerset West, is now owned by Anglo-American but the wines are still excellent: the standard Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (which retail at around Euros 15-20) are particularly worthwhile.
- Warwick Estate: One of the most innovative wineries in Stellenbosch, run by the ebullient Mike Ratcliffe: A leading South African wine club told me “we take anything he offers us.” Taste and you’ll see why.
- Waterford: If you feel you are in the south of France, it’s intentional: the stone walls and chuckling fountain are a welcoming environment in which to taste some full bodied, decidedly un-French tasting reds.
Accomodation tips: It will doubtless come as now suprise that there is absolutely no shortage of places to stay in South Africa's winelands but if you are planning to stay in the Stellenbosch-Franshhoek-Paarl triangle, holing up in or near one of the first two towns makes most sense (avoid Paarl, which despite some great wineries is something of a traffic hell). Stellenbosch is the larger town - complete with perhaps South Africa's most dinstinguished universities - and the compact city centre rewards wandering; there are some good ethnic shops and excellent restaurants serving local game (kudu is particularly worth trying; stay away from crocodile meat though, it tastes like bad chicken). Franshhoek is much smaller and more chi-chi but again with some excellent restaurants. Accomodation here is strongly biased towards small, exclusive US-style B&B establishments.
Wines from the other Washington
“If you pitted our top 20 producers against California’s top 20, I reckon we’d do just fine,” says Bud Stocking, managing partner of the Three Rivers Winery in Walla-Walla, a leader amongst Washington State’s nine wine regions.
For Europeans, for whom the US wine industry comprises Napa Valley, Sonoma and - at a pinch - Oregon Pinot Noir, such talk seems far-fetched. However US consumers, for whom Washington State wine is an increasingly popular alternative to Californian, would readily concur. Mr Stocking’s winery is a perfect example of how Washington’s wine industry, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary and is now the second largest in the US, contributing over $3bn to the state’s economy, has come of age. Stocking’s Bordeaux-blend Meritage is a seriously well-made, superbly balanced wine; it and many of his other premium wines – including a Syrah, a Merlot, an excellent Chardonnay and a late harvest Gewurtztraminer – have won awards.
Yet Three Rivers is hardly alone in its evolution: there are now almost 450 wineries in the state, against 19 in 1981, and nine wine regions (AVAs). Many of the small producers target the premium end of the market (ie over Euro 20 a bottle) with experimentation the order of the day. Indeed, Washington State produces such an eclectic range of varietals that it makes California, with its traditional focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Chardonnay, seem absurdly conservative.
Charles Reininger, a mountain climber before starting his eponymously-named winery in 1997, says climate – largely dry to the east of the Cascade Mountains, which act as a giant squeegee on moisture from rainy Seattle – encourages this, as do the long daytime hours: there can be 17.5 hours of light a day in summer, fantastic for late maturing grapes such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, almost everything seems to grow well here except Pinot Noir, for which the climate seems too hot, and Zinfandel (perversely, because it’s not hot enough).
A grower's playground
“For those who like making wine, this is a playground – winegrowers can pretty much go out and grow what they like,” he says, adding that this year he’ll be trying his hand at Carmenere and Malbec, varieties more normally associated with Chile and Argentina.
So where to start? The logical place is Chateau St Michelle, which established the industry in 1976, and which now – as St Michelle Wine Estates - has numerous brands. Headquartered in Woodinville, near Seattle, it accounts for well over half the wine produced in the state, dominating the low to medium end of the market with well made, easy drinking Chardonnays, Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons that are exported to most European countries (its lightly-oaked Columbia Valley Chardonnay makes a pleasant aperitif, with Columbia Crest the best known brand). Although the company has moved into premium wines – its award winning North Star Merlot (around Euro 48) is a fine example – many of the more interesting wines are being made by boutique producers. Terra Blanca, established by geologist Keith Pilgrim, in the premium Red Mountain wine region, is typical. Amongst its whites are a tasty Roussanne (Euro 15.75) and an impressive Viognier (around Euro 12) and a delicious Chenin Blanc ice wine (around Euro 40 for a 500 ml bottle); but for serious drinkers, his reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (both around Euro 23) and the Bordeaux-blend Oynx (Euro 34.50) are the wines to try – although, as with many of the smaller Washington wine producers, finding them in Europe is difficult. Pilgrim, who for the first time has just planted Grenache, affirms it is Washington’s variety that makes it special.
“Being part of a developing region really enables you to see what works where and what doesn’t,” he says, over lunch paired with a fresh-tasting Sauvignon Blanc and a dark red, full-bodied Syrah.
Europeans may not be able to taste many wines from Washington but they are playing an increasing role in making them. French winemakers, noting Washington State is on the same latitude as Bordeaux, are in situ, whilst German winemaker Ernst Loosen has produced two award winning Rieslings with St Michelle Wine Estates, including the much praised Eroica. And later this year Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori and St Michelle are coming together to launch a state of the art $6m (Euro 4.72m) facility in the Red Mountain area to produce Col Solare, a Bordeaux blend.
“That such a young wine region is getting such prestigious support – it’s a real vote of confidence,” admits Charles Reininger.