A Wine Excursion to the Pacific NW

Fast Facts on this Week’s Featured Wines:

  • 2016 Trader Joe’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Lot #189, Wahluke Slope, Columbia Valley, Washington  ($9.99 @Trader Joe’s, California)
  • 2017 Kirkland Signature Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Washington ($14.99 @Costco, California – Item #975274)

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that virtually all of the wine produced in the United States is produced in California. Because 86% of it is. In distant second and third places are Washington state and Oregon, which produce 5% and 4% respectively.

This week we give props to the underdogs by featuring two wines from the upper west coast. While these two are quite different, both are good ambassadors for the distinctive and delicious wines of the Pacific Northwest (PNW).

 

This week’s featured wine from Trader Joe’s:

 

Front label of Trader Joe's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state
Is this wine from the Columbia Valley AVA, or from the Wahluke Slope AVA?  The answer is: yes.

 

We talk alot about AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) in these posts, and this can be a confusing topic since sometimes a wine comes from an AVA inside of an AVA.  Let me explain. This bottling comes from the Wahluke Slope AVA, which is part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA, both of which are obviously part of Washington State, which is in itself a recognized (at least in terms of government regulation) wine growing area.

We tend to think of the PNW as cooler and damper than the wine regions of California to the south.  While this is largely true for the wine regions in Western Washington, the regions and AVA’s in Eastern Washington (screened by the moderating maritime air by the Cascade Mountains) are actually dry and hot in the summer growing season. Case in point, the Wahluke Slope AVA has one of the driest, warmest climates in the state, relying heavily on irrigation provided by the Columbia River.

Named an official Washington State appellation in 2006, the Wahluke Slope produces approximately 20 percent of the entire Washington State grape harvest each year. Gravelly, rocky soil, combined with its dry, warm climate, make Wahluke Slope one of the best places in Washington to grow wine grapes, which are primarily red wine grapes and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Wahluke Slope wines tend to be ripe and full-bodied with pure varietal fruit flavors.

Red wines blossomed later than whites in Washington. The first great red success was with Cabernet Sauvignon and subsequently Merlot, two varieties that do well in warmer climates. One shudders to think how vegetal and unripe red blends from the western part of the state would be!

 

Tasting Notes:

This Cabernet shows plenty of typical black cherry and cassis aromas and flavors. It also has nice “dark fruit aromas with notes of black tea, cocoa and spices” but I also detected sweet cherries, red currants, and raspberries, along with chocolate.  This is classic Washington State Cab, which tend to be softer and smoother than renditions crafted to the south in the Golden State.

 

This week’s featured wine from Costco:

Front label of Kirkland Signature Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2017
Next stop on this week’s tour of the PNW –  Oregon.  Just south of Washington state but stylistically a million miles away.

 

While it might be convenient to lump Washington and Oregon together in one great big monoculture, they are in reality quite different. Of the three west coast wine producing states, Oregon is the most markedly different and struggles the most to achieve ripening.

Simply put, warm temperatures ripen grapes and drive sugar thus alcohol levels up. It is telling to not only taste the difference in these two wines in terms of ripeness, but to also take note of their alcohol levels. The featured wine from Washington clocks in at 14.5% whereas this one from Oregon only registers 12.5%.

The Willamette Valley Wine Region is one of the most influential wine producing regions in all of Oregon as well as the entire Pacific Northwest. The region spans from the Columbia River in the north all the way down to Eugene in the South. It is by far Oregon’s largest AVA and is dominated by plantings of Pinot Noir and smaller amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.

Coming from the Willamette Valley, where Pinot Noir is king, the Kirkland brand is a solid choice for an every-day, easy drinking wine.

Tasting Notes:

Once poured, the wine in the glass is a color that is a bit paler than the normal ruby shade that one associates with Pinot Noir from warmer areas. It was mildly fragrant with black cherry, plum, and the tyical Dr. Pepper earthiness.  These translated smoothly into the flavor spectrum once tasted, and it had nice notes of allspice in the finish.

When first opened, I found the wine a bit more rustic than when I revisited it the next day, when it was more balanced.

For a great food pairing, try this wines with herb-crusted roasted chicken, pork loin, mild game birds or simple grilled salmon.

Getting oriented to the wine regions of the PNW:

Map showing the wine regions of Oregon and Washington
The wine regions of the Oregon and Washington.  Note how much closer to the coast the Oregon producers are – you can taste it in the wines.

 

Map of the wine regions of Washington state
Zooming in now on Washington’s Columbia Valley, you’ll find Wahluke Slope AVA right there in the middle of Washington State, east of the Cascade Mountains

 

Sarah Cabot is the winemaker for Kirkland’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  While she previously made her mark crafting small production, artisanal wines that did quite well, she is now head of winemaking for Precept Wine’s 100K case Oregon portfolio, which includes the Kirkland Signature Series Pinot Noir brand.

“My objective has shifted over the years,” she says in a recent article. “Now it’s to make the best $15 Pinot Noir—a wine that can line up and perform next to a $25 Pinot in a blind tasting.

Let us know if you think she has succeeded here.

Cheers!

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