In the last few years, the Northwest’s winemakers have embarked on a voyage of discovery that would have been unimaginable a couple decades ago. Instead of making only straight varietally-centered red wines such as 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir, they have begun exploring our now burgeoning world of red blends — and they’re aiming for and achieving high quality.
The chief beneficiary has been the consumer, who now faces a dazzling — and sometimes bewildering — array of wines few could have imagined in the waning years of the 20th century. Stop in at almost any winery, wine shop or retailer, and you can expect to face shelf after shelf of these blends, some labeled as simply as Cabernet-Merlot, others as high-flying as Hawk’s Haven.
Here’s evidence of how omnipresent red blends have become in our region: At the recent Hood River invitational competition conducted by Great Northwest Wines, the region’s most influential wine retailers, restaurateurs and sommeliers nominated 382 of their preferred wines — including 72 red blends — for judging. Of the total, 87 won gold medals, or 22.8 percent. Of the red blends, 16 won gold medals, or 18.3 percent. Wineries and winemakers have not shirked on quality in crafting these wines.
In the main, the Northwest has largely followed Europe’s example in blending practices. Most are Bordeaux-style, which means they contain some mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
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Next most common are Rhone blends, typically containing the well-known Syrah, Grenache and Mourvédre, often with a dash of a white wine, Viognier. If you detect a whiff of orange peel in a GSM blend, it may be a bit of this white’s aromatics emerging.
Northwest winemakers also are experimenting with Italian-style blends focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.
Despite these traditions, a Northwest red blend can contain almost anything a winemaker can imagine. For at least a decade, a slug of Syrah has been used in what is often called “Washington Bordeaux” to enhance the blend’s mid-palate.
And Westport Winery in Aberdeen, Wash., far from the main grape-growing regions of the Northwest, has built an imaginative blend called Jetty Cat around Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Petit Sirah, Tempranillo and Syrah. It’s a $28 mix of French, Italian and Spanish wine traditions, with a dash of Washington inspiration. And it also was a Platinum award-winner in Wine Press Northwest’s recently concluded “best of the best” judging of the region’s gold medal-winning wines.
The Northwest’s current free-thinking, high-quality experiments into blending didn’t all start that way. Twenty-five years ago, a red blend was often a way to market a wine that perhaps aimed to disguise a batch of grapes that might have been a bit under- or overripe or that otherwise didn’t quite live up to expectations. Many of those older Cabernet-Merlot blends did, however, sell at bargain prices.
And a surprising change occurred. Many of those inexpensive blends became not only a bargain but also a coveted cellar addition when the winemaker’s art, and perhaps a little luck, triumphed over expectation. Some have remained bargains while displaying excellent quality.
One outstanding example is the 2012 Cab-Merlot blend made by Kiona Vineyards and Winery on Red Mountain near Benton City, Wash. This $15 wine also won a Platinum award in Wine Press Northwest’s annual competition.
Best news of all is that there are dozens of quality Northwest blends at prices that won’t break your bank. In the Platinum judging, blends costing from $15 to $34 won 18 Platinum awards, with five of them rating double Platinums.
That means red blends won almost 15 percent of the top awards. And none was a bankroll breaker. That honor went to an amazing $74 Cabernet Sauvignon.
The holidays are here, and the perfect wine for all our winter celebrations is, of course, sparkling. The French, as is their custom, have gotten all snobbish about sparkling wine in recent years and no longer allow us to use their beloved word, Champagne. It now must be applied, commercially at least, only to sparkling wines from this singular region of France.
Now you might think that the winemakers of Champagne would be beneficent enough to allow France’s other regions to borrow their term. But you would be wrong, wrong and wrong. The merciless winemakers of Champagne have no pity for their poor fellow partisans of the Alsace, Burgundy, Loire and everywhere else where French is spoken on the Continent. Insufferability knows all bounds in Gaul.
So, the sparkling wines of such “lesser” regions have adopted a term once reserved for French wines with a bit less bubble. Cremant (pronounced cray-mawn in a land where the letter “T” suffers mostly in silence) was deemed the perfect substitute by winemakers who don’t hail from Champagne. That may be little help for we who speak English on this side of the Atlantic, but there is some consolation.
As prices for good Champagnes have soared, Cremant prices have been much less volatile. In fact, quite good bubblies can be found for under $20 if you have a capable wine shop or grocer. And you will find Cremant is made from a much broader array of grapes, including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling, not just Champagne’s choices of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
If not, as Northwesterners we have many other options, some made from rather adventurous grapes, including Gewürztraminer and Müeller-Thurgau. Or we can fall back on those reliable, high quality and inexpensive sparklers from Domaine Ste. Michelle, this year relabeled simply Michelle. Or from regional favorites such as Treveri Cellars of Wapato, Wash., Argyle from Dundee, Ore., Mountain Dome in Spokane, or Kramer Vineyards from the Yamhill-Carlton area of Oregon.
Whichever you choose, your holidays will be happier with a little sparkler in your glass.