In recent years hearty red wines from Washington have been muscling their way, slowly but steadily, into the market.
But all along, many savvy consumers have known what great values the state's white wines provide. From $10-and-under sauvignon blancs to over-$20 rieslings and Rhone-style blends, Washington delivers major bang for the buck.
What's most unusual is that the "big guys," bulk producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Hogue, Pacific Rim and Charles Smith, have seriously high standards. That sets a tone that smaller operations such as Desert Wind, Dusted Valley, Hedges, Seven Hills and many others follow.
The even better news: In the past couple of years, smaller wholesalers here have been bringing in new (to this market) brands such as McKinley Springs and Saviah Cellars. Lauren Ashton, whose Cuvee Meline blend might be the best domestic white I've tasted this year, will be hitting Twin Cities stores in a few weeks.
Oddly, there's not a lot happening with Americans' favorite white, chardonnay. The big guys listed above produce very nice chardonnay — I'm particularly fond of the Charles Smith "Eve" and Dusted Valley "Boomtown" at $14 or so — but most of the higher-end chards generally do not get out of the Great Northwest.
Locally available sauvignon blancs, on the other hand, tend to drink above their price point, especially the less expensive offerings from Hogue, Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest.
The same goes, only more so, for Washington rieslings. "Those are terrific wines," said Mitch Zavada, wine buyer for South Lyndale Liquors in Minneapolis, citing the $20-plus "Eroica," a perennially swell collaboration of Chateau Ste. Michelle and German maestro Ernst Loosen.
I'm just as enamored of the $24 Poet's Leap Riesling, which can stand up and shout next to any German or Alsatian riesling at that price. For around half that amount, check out Pacific Rim, Washington Hills and particularly Charles Smith "Kungfu Girl."
Similar bargains can be found with delicious pinot gris from Milbrandt, Charles Smith "Vino" and Boomtown in the $12-$14 range and the wonderful Canoe Ridge Horse Heaven Hills for about $16.
Since Washington's wine country borders a desert and is known for being hot and dry, it's a bit surprising to see cool-weather varietals such as riesling and pinot gris fare so well there.
Or maybe it's not. "The Columbia Valley covers a lot of ground, and there are definitely cooler parts of it," said Dusted Valley co-owner/winemaker Chad Johnson. "Depending on what you want to do stylistically, you can find vineyards to match your goals. We can craft lower-alcohol German-style Rieslings or a bigger, dry Alsatian style."
Works for me.
There are other varietals (McKinley Springs Chenin Blanc, L'Ecole 41 semillon) and blends (CMS Hedges) that deliver tremendous value out of the Evergreen State. But perhaps most promising are the white grapes associated with France's Rhone region. Desert Wind Viognier and Covington Cellars Grenache Blanc are harbingers of what's to come, Johnson said.
"I have really enjoyed many of the Rhone-inspired white blends and varietals," he said. "They usually maintain some incredible balance and freshness without being too overdone."
Johnson will be among the "winemasters" — along with Chateau Ste. Michelle's Bob Bertheau, Precept Wine's Andrew Browne, Columbia Winery's Sean Hails and Canoe Ridge's Bill Murray — at this weekend's WineFest. Tickets for the Friday grand tasting, set for 6:30-9:30 p.m. at the Depot, are $105 and go on sale at the door at 6 p.m. For more information, go to www.thewinefest.org.
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