Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Washington and Oregon tasting

By Madeline Mehalko
Wine Buyer

I attended yesterday a tasting of wines from Washington and Oregon, in the North West of America. Despite being American and buying for North America, I knew relatively little about these regions as so much of what we see in the UK is from California (and there isn’t even really a great deal of that). It was eye-opening – given the geographical proximity of the two, you would think the climates and the wines would be very similar, but they are worlds apart.

In terms of latitude, Washington’s Columbia Valley sits about where Burgundy is; Oregon’s Willamette Valley more like Bordeaux and the Southern Rhone. In theory, this would make the Columbia Valley a bit cooler, but it’s not so simple. Columbia Valley sits to the east of the Cascade Mountain range, where the climate is more desert than coastal whereas the Willamette Valley sits in between the Coastal and the Cascade Mountain ranges where the climate is cool and maritime. There is significantly more rain, a long growing season, and the vineyards can be described as ‘green’ – not always the case in Washington. Washington’s saving grace from the hot temperatures, intense sunlight and lack of precipitation is the cool nights – this prevents the grapes from being overripe and lacking in acidity.

The climate isn’t the only remarkable feature – the soils are possibly more complex than any winegrowing region I’ve come across. There are volcanic soils/balsaltic lava from the actively volcanic Cascades mountains, marine fossils from 200 million years ago when the whole area was under the Pacific, elements from both the Pacific and the North American tectonic plates (the states were formed when the two collided), and layers upon layers of alluvial soils from hundreds of miles away in Montana when melting glaciers repeatedly flooded both areas. In some areas these layers are stacked on top of each other, but in others they have been tilted on their side, meaning one patch of land can be a completely different soil type from a completely different era than the one right next to it.

In terms of grape varieties, there are all sorts of experimental plantings but all you really need to know is Pinot Noir in Oregon (with perhaps a little Pinot Gris) and Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling in Washington. In general, other varieties are less successful. The difference in climate is astoundingly clear when tasting the wines – Pinot Noir/Pinot Gris from Oregon is delicate and fresh, quite light in body and colour, and often not unlike a fine Burgundy. Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays from Washington are ripe and robust, definitely more New World in feel than their neighbours to the South.

One thing that really stuck with me from a seminar I attended in the morning was that for the past few years, the Wine Spectator has given the wines from these regions a greater percentage of 90+ points than any other region in the world!! In 2011, a massive 48% of the wines reviewed were given a stellar score of 90 or above – more than the whole of France, Italy, or even California… I think this means it’s time to sit up and pay attention!

Though getting wines over from the USA is a long and complicated process, luckily we already have some of these wines in stock and there is another shipment on the way of the new vintages – to sample what the region has to offer, check out the Wines by Joe (Oregon) and Powers (Washington) wines currently in the Averys range.

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