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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

Pacific Northwest Wines

Friday, August 29, 2008

On a nearly daily basis, I am asked, what my favorite wine is. This is an impossible question to answer. Without being condescending, I am always grasping for the most diplomatic way to explain that there’s no real answer. My tastes changes every day, it really depends on what my mood, the weather, or my current interest. All of that said, I am finding myself smitten by a particular region at this moment. The Pacific Northwest.

Why is The Pacific Northwest so great? It’s not just Sasquatch and Redwoods. There’s something exciting about the wines they are producing, and the spirit in which they are producing them. I’ve fallen in love with not just the quality and style, but also the ethos.

But what makes the wine so uniquely great? It’s a combination of many things, but 2 factors are critical, Culture and Geography. First let’s examine The Pacific Northwest as a Wine Growing Region. The area I am really referring to begins about 60 miles south of Portland (Willamette Valley), and extends north along the Cascades through the Columbia Valley which ends right between Spokane and Seattle. Geographically, it lies to the East of the “Cascade Rain Shadow” which makes the region much warmer and drier than the rain soaked Puget Sound region. Situated as far north as it is, means longer days, and more hours of sunlight during growing season. Low humidity also contributes to dramatic differences between day and night temperatures. All of this means that the grapes grow very well in this area. The cooler Willamette Valley in Oregon is phenomenal for Burgundian Varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and especially Pinot Noir. The Columbia Valley, which follows the course of the Columbia river (begins in the cascades and hits the Pacific near the Oregon/Washington Border) is a gigantic Appellation made up of Yakima Valley on the western edge, Walla Walla Valley on the western Edge, and hosts Rattlesnake Hill and Horse Heaven Hills as microclimates in the middle of the area. Since this part of Washington lies behind the highest peaks of the Cascades, the climate is more like high dessert, and the average temperature is higher, the rainfall is lower, ideal for Bordeaux and Rhone Varietals. Cabernet is King in Washington, but the best Merlots in the new world are found here, and the insiders know that Syrah is very exciting is this neighborhood.

The Wine Culture of The Pacific Northwest benefits from something called the “Algonquin Round Table Effect”. Which is to say that the people that are making the wine are comprised of a) Locals, outsiders and disaffected wine insiders from around the globe (often dissenters from California) b) People of disparate backgrounds in different industries all inspiring each other. The original Algonquin Round table was comprised of writers, actors, and critics. The new version is comprised of brewers, farmers, chefs & vintners. The outsider approach and the relative newness of the region have allowed this group to reinvent the entire “foodie” culture from the ground up. Cute animal labels don’t fly here. Most wines have a true sense of place. Many are organically grown, and most are sustainably farmed. There is a true frontier spirit in this region, a neighbor helping neighbor approach. While their viticultural history only dates back 30 years, its relative youth give the producers perspective. You won’t find castle replicas or sprawling Italian villas with $20 tasting fees. The Pacific Northwest isn’t about tourism or what plays in Peoria, it’s about making great wines.

The style of the region is it’s own, while very reminiscent of a diversity of great regions. If California, and most of the new world, are about sweet fruit and oak flavors with varying degrees of tannins, and France, and most of the old world, are about earth flavors, and high acidity, Pacific Northwest is about a balance. The balance between fruit and earth, between tannins and velvet is rare. The wines have the ability to lean either way very naturally. The amazing thing, that I keep coming back to, is the tendency for each wine to accurately show it’s varietal character. Something that is often rare in the new world. This surely comes from the soul of the region, to be able to craft something special because the circumstances leading up to this wine are so special. One of the extraordinary abilities of wine is it’s ability to reflect the place from where it came and the people that made it. Wines from the Pacific Northwest are my favorite at this moment, but I suspect that based on their recent greatness, they aren’t done reaching new heights.


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