Climbing the Heights in Washington and Oregon (March 8, 2002)
Washington Cabernet-based blends
Other recommended producers:
L'Ecole No. 41
Oregon Pinot Noirs
Lemelson (Canadian winemaker, Thomas Bachelder)
Every bottle of wine is a blind date. The wine lover approaches
it with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and dread. The drawing
of the cork, like the opening of the door, is the moment of truth.
Will it be the experience of a lifetime or a monumental disappointment?
A cherished label raises a cornucopia of expectations that are
soon dashed if that long-cellared bottle is over the hill, tainted
by the cork (trichloranisole) or oxidized by bad storage conditions.
Tasting blind, when you don't know the provenance of what
is in your glass, puts clothes on the emperor. When you taste without
seeing the label you have no expectations, no preconceived notions,
no prejudices. All you have is a flight of wines that all look similar.
The results can be startling.
Case in point. In late January, Toronto played host to the 11th
Annual Pacific Northwest Wine Fair. The organizers invited the local
wine trade and writers to take part in a blind tasting of six Cabernet-based
wines from the 1997 and 1998 vintages. We assumed they were all
Washington state wines. They asked the thirty of us to taste, make
our notes and rank the wines in order of preference.
The wines were all high quality and when the rankings were tallied
and the labels exposed it turned out that the group consensus placed
four Washington state wines above two much-vaunted and highly-priced
California icons, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1997
and Ridge Montebello 1997. Those were my placings too, although
my notes put Pepperbridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 first, followed
by Powers Winery "Parallel 46" 1998 – the wine the
group average placed first. The Powers blend of 60 per cent Cabernet
Sauvignon, 30 per cent Merlot and 10 per cent Cabernet Franc cost
$45 in Ontario as opposed to Ridge Montebello at $189.
The other wines in my order of ranking were Gordon Brothers "Tradition"
1998 (3), Hedges Red Mountain 1998 (4), Ridge (5), Mondavi (6).
On another day, under different tasting circumstances, this order
may be reversed, but as an exercise under controlled conditions
it shows just how far Washington Cabernet blends have come in terms
That evening Oregon joined Washington for an event called "Gems
of the Northwest," at which twenty producers showcased their
top wines in aid of "Grapes for Humanity" – a Toronto-based
charitable foundation that raises money through the wine community
for victims of landmines (see www.grapesforhumanity.com).
Oregon is best known for its Pinot Noir – a variety that Marq
de Villiers aptly described in the title of his book as "The
Heartbreak Grape." Pinot Noir, the grape of red Burgundy, is
the most difficult variety to get right. It's like the little girl
with the curl: when she is good, she is very, very good, but when
she is bad, she's horrid. Pinot Noir only ripens in marginal climatic
conditions: too cool and it develops green flavours; too warm and
it over-ripens into raspberry jam, lacking acidic balance.
In her comprehensive guide, Wines of the Pacific Northwest
(Mitchell Beazley, $50), author Lisa Shara Hall describes Oregon
Pinot Noir as "somewhere between the lush style of California-grown
fruit and the earthy elegance of quality Burgundy."
Myron Redford, the proprietor of Amity Vineyards in Oregon's Yamhill
County, has no illusions about the variety he has struggled with
for nearly thirty years. "Burgundy," he says, "is
like going to Reno, you're always gambling. You spend a lot of money
and you can lose, but when you win... wow. No matter how many tastings
you put on most people can't tell the difference between good Oregon
Pinot Noir and good Burgundy."
That statement was put to the test earlier in the day when the
same group blind-tasted Oregon Pinot Noir against red Burgundies,
all from the 1998 vintage. The organizers did not tell us that this
would be the case. The assumption was that the ten wines, served
in two flights, were all Oregon Pinots. Certainly, the Burgundian
style is evident to the experienced taster, being leaner, more sinewy
and acidic when young, and generally lighter in colour. Again the
Oregon Pinots triumphed over the red Burgundies in the group assessment.
Which all goes to show that Oregon Pinot Noir is a bargain for the
wine lover when matched with comparable quality from Burgundy.