Look to Washington

The United States is the world’s 4th largest wine producer (behind Italy, France and Spain) and, surprisingly, every one of America’s 50 states has some commercial wineries.  Yes – even Alaska, apparently, despite its location way further north than the normally accepted limits for ripening grapes.  Top of the tree is California – that state makes almost 90% of the USA’s entire wine output including some of the world’s most expensive bottles as well as many for more every day drinking that you can find on any supermarket shelf. 

But, for today, I’m going to ignore both of these extremes and focus on Washington state.  It actually has the 2nd largest wine production after California – a very distant 2nd, admittedly, making less than a tenth as much wine as that giant, but look around the shelves and you’ll find some interesting and attractive wines from there in a diversity of styles. 

The majority of the state’s vineyards are away from the Pacific coast, to the east of the Cascade Mountains and in their rain shadow, which means that much of the area is semi-desert and growing vines is dependent on irrigation using water from the local rivers.  Washington’s location, straddling the 46°N line of latitude (which equates to northern Bordeaux/southern Burgundy in European terms), is ideal for vineyards and the short, hot, sunny, dry summers are perfect for ripening both red and white grapes.

We opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon recently from Chateau Ste Michelle, easily the state’s biggest producer (Majestic, £14.99).  Lovely deep colour with subtle black fruit and cinnamon on the nose.  The palate is fresh with more black fruits – blackberries and black plums – soft tannins and a distinctly oaky overtone.  The finish is, perhaps, a little shorter than you might expect from a wine at this price but it’s a very drinkable glassful, nonetheless, particularly when paired with a tasty beef or game casserole.

It may be easier to find something from California but, on the strength of this and a few others I have tasted, Washington state has some attractive offerings, too.

Vines Love Gravel

Many of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines are from vineyards planted on gravel-rich soils: the 1st Growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux to name just 3.  But it’s not just in Bordeaux that gravel is highly regarded for vines.  A bottle I opened recently from New Zealand boasted of its origins in the Gimblett Gravels.  So, what is the link between this type of soil and high quality wine?

Gravel is a good base for a vineyard for a number of reasons.  It’s usually low in fertility which means that the vines have to struggle to extract the moisture and nutrients they need for growth.  This struggle puts the vine into survival mode, so it produces more grapes which contain the pips which are the vine’s way to propagate itself.

Also, gravel is porous so, in wetter areas, rainfall can drain through meaning that the vines’ roots aren’t sitting in water where they may rot.  But vines still need some water so they extend their roots to find it and, at the same time, pick up extra nutrients which are often linked to more flavoursome grapes.

Finally, in cooler areas, gravel acts like tiny storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the sun during the day then releasing it as the sun goes down in the evening allowing the ripening process to extend over a couple more hours.

This is particularly important in both Bordeaux and New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels – both are relatively cool areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown.  Cabernet is quite a late-ripening variety and needs all the warmth it can get, so the little extra from the gravelly soil may just make the difference allowing the harvesting of fully ripe berries giving a wine that’s rich and appealing.

This was clearly the case with Saint Clair’s Pioneer Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £17.99); full of lovely damson and black plum flavours and hints of smoky oak – a delicious wine, although some may want to leave the 2019 vintage for a year or 2 as the bottle I opened was still a little firm and tannic.

I have to finish on a sad note with the news of the death this week of Steven Spurrier after a career in the wine industry spanning more than 50 years. He was best known as a wine writer and educator, but he was also the person who, almost single-handedly, brought Californian wines to attention of the wider world. For anyone who doesn’t know the amazing story, google ‘The Judgement of Paris’.

Re-thinking Chilean Wine

If I say ‘Chilean wine’ to you, what springs to mind?  Personally, I think of wines that are approachable, easy to drink, fruity, reliable and good value for money.  And UK wine lovers seem to agree – Chilean wines are big sellers here, particularly in the supermarkets.  But, do you see what’s missing in my description?  Nothing about wines that are exciting, challenging or innovative.  That’s not quite how I see Chile.

Part of the problem is that their wine industry is dominated by just 7 giant producers who, together, are responsible for over half of Chile’s wine.  By good marketing and a consistent product, they have secured a top 10 place among UK wine importers but, as a consequence, much of their offering is just a little bit safe.

But a piece in the latest Decanter magazine (labelled October) suggests that things are beginning to change.  Chile’s producers are expanding into new areas of the country, experimenting with different grape varieties and looking to produce more complex, age-worthy styles of wine.

The article prompted me to dig out a bottle from one of those 7 producers that I bought some time ago from the Wine Society (£14.50 at the time) and has been sitting quietly under our stairs ever since.   20 Barrels is one of Cono Sur’s premium labels and my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 2013 vintage, making it just over 7 years old.  So how had it aged?

I decanted it to find that the colour was still deep and vibrant, no sign of the browning rim that might show that it was past its best.  On the nose, quite fresh and fruity, with the blackcurrant aromas so typical of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape together with a few earthy, dusty notes.  The same followed through in the mouth with some plum and cassis, good intensity reflecting the 14½% alcohol and a little pepperiness and some spice from the well-integrated oak.  It had good length and the wine was still fresh and clearly with some years ahead of it yet (although not for me – I only had the one bottle).

So, time to re-think Chilean wines?  Perhaps.  At the entry level, the wines are easy drinking and good value for money but stretch a little upmarket and wines like this 20 Barrels definitely promise a good future if this is the direction in which Chilean wines are heading.

An Unusual Blend

For a wine lover, Spain has everything – well almost!  From attractive fizz to delicious, crisp, dry whites, sweet-fruited satisfying reds and a unique range of fortified wines.  But you won’t find all of these styles all over Spain; Spain comprises 17 determinedly autonomous regions, each growing its own particular grape varieties and frequently producing distinctly different wines from its neighbours.

One of the most independent-minded of these regions is Catalonia, the home of Spain’s Traditional Method sparkling wine, Cava, as well as many innovative and dynamic producers – Miguel Torres springs readily to mind.  But Catalonia also has many smaller, lesser-known estates offering distinctive high quality wines, often based on unusual blends of grape varieties.

One such estate is Parés Baltà with vineyards in the hilly Penedès district, west of Barcelona.  Here, they grow an assortment of grapes following biodynamic principles – a sort of super-organic regime that I have explained in more detail in past blogs.  The all-female winemaking team have created an interesting product range including a delicious red, Mas Petit (Corks, £15.99), made from a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, that we enjoyed recently.

I decanted the wine an hour before drinking revealing a lovely deep, ruby colour. The nose, a little dumb at first, soon opened up giving aromas of red cherries, dried herbs and toasty vanilla. To taste, the wine was quite soft and very approachable, concealing the 14.5% alcohol well.  There was a hint of subtle vanilla spice from 7 months in older French oak barrels but the main impression was of vibrant red and black fruits and a delightful herbiness. 

Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon may not be the most common blend of grapes but here it worked well with, perhaps surprisingly, the soft richness of the Grenache taking centre stage ahead of the usually more forward Cabernet.  Food match? Pretty versatile, I’d say, but we teamed it with some roast duck legs coated with an aromatic spicy rub.  Delicious!

A ‘Marmite’ Wine

Lebanon’s most famous red, Chateau Musar, is a Marmite* wine (see below if this means nothing to you) – people either love it or hate it.  My wife has quite enjoyed it in the past, but I’ve often been rather disappointed, finding it over-heavy and a little old-fashioned in style.  So, as a result, it’s not a wine we buy regularly.  But, when some very good friends messaged us recently to say they’d got a bottle and would we like to share it with them, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse and we accepted eagerly.  Then, when I learnt that the bottle in question was from the 2001 vintage, I began to get quite interested.  Because Musar is a wine that needs time to reach its peak, lots of time.  So, at almost 19 years old, I thought this might just be something special – and it was.

Musar 2001

Decanted a couple of hours before serving – always a good idea with Musar – the wine showed definite signs of age in the glass with a shiny brick-red rim to it.  On the nose, it was clearly a mature wine but still wonderfully lively and fresh and with none of the volatile or alcoholic smells that had put me off in the past, just lovely, savoury, dried fruit and fig aromas.  The palate was deliciously soft and harmonious with the same flavours and character I had noted previously and the sensations just went on and on in the mouth – and in the glass over the remainder of the evening.

The grapes for red Musar are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with 2 varieties native to the south of France, Cinsault and Carignan, all grown in the hot, dry Bekaa Valley in vineyards almost 1000 m (3000 ft) above sea level.  Fermentation is in cement vats and then the wine spends a year in oak barrels.  The 2001 vintage was finally bottled in summer 2004 but, typical of Musar, not released for sale until some years later when the producers thought it was ‘ready’.

Waitrose Cellars are still showing a stock of the 2001 on their website at £27.99 and more recent Musar vintages are quite widely available, but need time before being at their best.  A wine to enjoy (or not) depending on your view.

* for those readers not familiar with it, Marmite is a tangy, savoury spread