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Climbing the Heights in Washington and Oregon (March 8, 2002)


Washington Cabernet-based blends
Other recommended producers:

Andrew Will
Andrake Cellars
Betz Family
Delille Cellars
Glen Fiona
L'Ecole No. 41
Quilceda Creek
Soos Creek
Woodward Canyon

Oregon Pinot Noirs
Recommended producers:

Beaux Frères
Domaine Drouhin
Domaine Serene
Fiddlehead Cellars
Ken Wright
Lemelson (Canadian winemaker, Thomas Bachelder)
Oak Knoll
Siduri Wines
St. Innocent
The Eyrie
Willakenzie Estate

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 of quality.

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

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.




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