Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Washington red blends play by Old World rules

Tom Merkle of Four Feathers Wine Estates ranks among the top vineyard managers in Washington state.
Tom Merkle of Four Feathers Wine Estates ranks among the top vineyard managers in Washington state.

Many major wine-producing regions can lay claim to a signature blend.

In France’s Bordeaux region, it can be based on any of the red grapes, often Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Rhône Valley, it could be Syrah. In Cahors, it is Malbec. In Australia, it likely is to be Shiraz/Syrah. In Spain, there’s Tempranillo. In Italy, the foundation often is Sangiovese.

These regional differences come out of tradition, often built from generations of winemaking, based on what winemakers learned from centuries of learned observations.

Here in the New World, winemakers learned that a blend can often produce a superior wine. As a result, red wine blends now constitute the single largest category of wine. The blend style doesn’t come from any regional traditions, rather, Northwest winemakers consistently look to emulate the region styles from the Old World.

Here are several examples of red blends made from Washington grapes. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or purchase directly from the winery.

Barnard Griffin Winery 2016 Rob’s Red Blend, Washington $14: The entry level to Rob Griffin’s Signature Red Wine series is this approachable, consumer-friendly blend where Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot combine for 84 percent of the base. Vineyard sources include Arete and Caroway in the Columbia Valley along with Black Rock in the Yakima Valley, and it spent 19 months in European oak barrels of varying usage. The results are fruit-forward with a nose of sweet cherry, blueberry jam and blood orange. Cherry pie filling and blueberry flavors come with pleasing chocolaty tannins as pomegranate acidity makes for a long finish. Look for this at bargain prices at grocery stores throughout the Northwest.

Griffin and Hughes
Rob Griffin, the dean of Washington winemakers, and his winemaking daughter, Megan Hughes, form a two-generation team at Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland, Wash. Courtesy of Richard Duval Images

Pepper Bridge Winery 2015 Estate Vineyards Trine Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley, $65: Swiss-born Jean-François Pellet takes a Left Bank Bordeaux approach with this Meritage-style blend as Cabernet Franc (40 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (28 percent) combine to dominate this blend with Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot adding complexity and structure. Estate sites Seven Hills, Octave and namesake Pepper Bridge Vineyard set the table for a long, approachable and age-worthy red framed by sweet herbs, chalkboard dust, cherry, red currant, raspberry and stately tannins.

North by Northwest 2015 Red Blend, Columbia Valley $15: Oregon icon King Estate continues its interest in Washington state fruit with its consumer-minded North by Northwest brand, and they collaborate here with Four Feathers Wine Estates vineyards McNary in the Horse Heaven Hills and Soaring Eagle on the Wahluke Slope. Both sites are farmed by Tom Merkle, the Auction of Washington Wines’s Honorary Grower for 2017. The blend developed by King Estate winemaker Brent Stone is equal parts Merlot and Syrah with support from Cabernet Sauvignon (28 percent). There’s density to the nose of black cherry pie, cocoa powder and vanilla bean, which lead to flavors of creamy cherries, raspberry and cola.

Inconceivable Wines 2014 Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $25: The Middleton family of Cadaretta acclaim launched this brand in 2012, a tier that also includes wines Santa Barbara County tied to their Clayhouse project in California. Here’s a GSM-inspired blend of Syrah (63 percent), Grenache (28 percent) and Mourvèdre that’s co-fermented with a dash of Viognier and created at Artifex in Walla Walla. Middleton-owned Southwind Vineyard above Milton-Freewater, Ore. - home to their iconic Glass House events center - contributed the Syrah and Viognier, while Monette’s Vineyard in The Rocks provided the Grenache. Toasted oak, cherry and chocolate aromas lead to an entry that’s big and bright with pomegranate and pie cherry.

Inconceivable Wines Glass house
The Middleton family of Cadaretta in the Walla Walla Valley uses grapes from Southwind Vineyard near their Glass House for their Inconceivable Wines program. Courtesy Richard Duval Images

Helix by Reininger 2014 Pomatia, Columbia Valley $22: One of the more clever names in the Northwest for a proprietary blend is Chuck Reininger’s use of Pomatia. The roots of this Columbia Valley brand by the Walla Walla Valley winemaker stem from a family farm in the town of Helix, Ore. The scientific Latin name for the Burgundy snail is Helix pomatia. The blend changes slightly each vintage between Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and this time Merlot and Cabernet Franc fill in nicely. Engaging aromas of Marionberry, toasted marshmallow and black tea lead to flavors of Montmorency cherry and blackberry. Brooding tannins slowly emerge within a finish of Graham cracker and pomegranate. Year after year, it ranks among the top value reds produced by a Walla Walla Valley winery.

Lobo Hills Wine Co. 2013 Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $35: Woodinville winemaker Tony Dollar, a product of the Bay Area, deepened his relationship with StoneTree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope for this bottling, and he legally he could have labeled this as a straight Syrah because it accounts for 80 percent of the blend. However, he chose to include Cabernet Sauvignon from MonteScarlatto for Red Mountain power. Dollar shows restraint during those 22 months in 40 percent new French oak barrels as aromas of fresh blueberry and black cherry lead to a bright and ripe blend of boysenberry and blueberry flavors.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at