Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara
With summer-loving students on their skateboards, surfers riding the waves that roll up to sandy beaches, and the main street lined with tall palm trees, Santa Barbara is as Californian as it gets. The culture is laid-back, self-confident, and independent, keen to assert its differences from the rest of the state even if to the outsider it seems quintessentially Californian.

the area

Santa Barbara is a coastal town about 150km north of Los Angeles and is as far south as quality winemaking gets in California. Santa Ynez Valley AVA is 30 minutes inland and within it is Santa Rita Hills AVA, which is the coolest AVA in California. Winds and fog come from the Pacific Ocean, cooling pocketed microclimates that are ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further north, about an hour and a half from Santa Barbara, is the large Santa Maria Valley AVA which is also cooled by coastal fog and which became famous for its Pinot Noirs in the 1980s. There are lots of vineyards here, but most wineries prefer to base themselves within the more attractive area of Santa Ynez.

Santa Ynez Valley

the towns

I stayed in Solvang, a small tourist town in Santa Ynez Valley and one of the strangest places I've visited. It was founded by Danish settlers over a hundred years ago and now functions as a model Denmark village. There are pizza-selling windmills rising around the town, gift shops pushing Danish embroidery, quasi-Danish pubs and restaurants, and Danish flags blowing in the breeze besides American ones. Danish is not spoken. It's a busy town full of tourists from all over the world; clearly, this Danish-American hybrid holds some fascination that draws people in.

Further south along the coast, Santa Barbara is a university surfing town. The main street is State Street, a long boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, and palm trees, leading to the ocean. Further away from the centre is Isla Vista, the university area known for its party scene, populated with tanned students on skateboards wearing back-to-front baseball hats. I only got to spend a couple of hours in Santa Barbara, but I liked the relaxed, easy, seaside way of life.

the wines

view from Au Bon Climat
The AVAs are renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - Santa Barbara was made famous by Sideways nearly ten years ago. (The Hitching Post, a small, nondescript wooden restaurant featured in the film, is near Solvang.) The Pinots are fruity and oaky, yet with depth, structure, and subtlety. The use of oak in the Chardonnays varies, but they are marked by tropical fruits. Riesling, unusually for California, can also be successful because of Santa Rita Hills's cool climate. Rhône grapes also do well: Syrah is peppery in Santa Rita Hills and fuller and fruitier in the rest of Santa Ynez Valley. The two wineries which define the area are Au Bon Climat and Qupé: the former specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while Qupé are known for their Rhône varieties - their single-varietal Roussanne and Marsanne are unique, ageworthy wines that develop for years in the bottle.

Au Bon Climat

The purpose of my visit to Santa Barbara was for a wedding, but that enabled me to meet Jim Clendenen at his Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria Valley - not only that, but to share a lunch cooked by Clendenen himself. 

Clendenen's lunch
Clendenen is a maverick: something of a hippy who since his first vintage in 1982 has built a 70,000-case winery; a brash, up-front individual who makes wine of individual character appreciated in the finest restaurants around the world; passionate about wine and the industry and wonderfully dismissive of big names (off the record of course); and a loving father with two ex-wives.

Au Bon Climat make almost exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The major exception is Hildegard, a wine that demonstrates Clendenen's willingness to challenge preconceived truths. The blend is Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Aligoté, the three grapes that were planted on Corton-Charlemagne, before Burgundy changed the rules to allow only Chardonnay in the Grands Crus. Clendenen wished to name the wine C. Charlemagne, but was advised that was not a good idea, so called it after Charlemagne's wife instead. An historic, world-class tribute to a style of wine that Burgundy refuses to make any more, the Hildegard is one of my favourite wines and I got to try the 2012 and 2006 side by side. The 2006 proved just how ageworthy this elegant but bold wine is, retaining its rich creaminess and acidity while gaining mature nutty notes.

For non-Burgundy wines, Clendenen uses the Clendenen Family Vineyards label. The 2008 Syrah-Viognier is a fruity wine that has a classy, concentrated structure: I was lucky to take an open bottle back with me and it was still drinking wonderfully well two days later. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding too, fermented and aged in a small amount of new oak: the grape is taken seriously instead of being a New Zealand wannabe.

The lunch was predictably epic, with risotto, chicken stew, vegetables, bread, and salad to choose from, accompanied by 15 wines. The rich Chardonnays worked less well with the heavy food than the Sauvignon Blanc and Qupé's 2011 Roussanne, both of whose light acidity balanced the food. Of the several different Pinots, the Isabelle - named after Jim's daughter - was my favourite with its dark fruits, smoky intensity, and gripping tannins.

view from Riverbench winery, Santa Maria Valley

The AVAs of Santa Barbara are young, with quality wine dating back only to the 1980s. In that time, they have quickly established themselves as producers of world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - though the Rhône grapes deserve more recognition too. It's quite a different area from Napa for instance, cooler in climate but also in sensibility. The producers are quietly learning their trade, aware of their inexperience but unpretentiously and rightly confident in the quality of their wines.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Italian Whites

The reputation of Italian white wine has never been as high as its reds, even though sweet whites have been made since Roman times and Chianti was originally a white wine. Until recently, the grapes were often fermented at too high temperatures, causing the wine to lose its aromatics, and the wines would be made even flabbier by skin contact and unnecessary barrel ageing. Italy's ubiquitous white grape, Trebbiano di Toscana, also didn't help the reputation. Known as Ugni Blanc in France, the grape is bland, neutral, lifted only by high acidity (which is why it's used for making Cognac).

The last twenty years, however, have seen a huge improvement in the quality of Italian whites, with fermentation at lower temperatures and in stainless steel vats. There is now a wide range of well-made, fresh, aromatic whites to choose from - some of them inexpensive for everyday drinking, others of higher quality but still good value.

In preparation for my Diploma exam, which is in June, I've been tasting some Italian whites to get a sense of the different identity of each variety and the region they come from.

Pinot Grigio

Such has been the transformation of Italian whites that Pinot Grigio is almost synonymous with white wine. Refreshing, easy, slightly fruity, and inexpensive, wines from Pinot Grigio dominate wines by the glass in bars and restaurants. The grape is the same as Alsace's Pinot Gris (the grey of the name referring to the grape's dark coloured skins), but produces a completely different style of wine as the grapes are picked much earlier, keeping the acidity high but the aromas more neutral. Richer versions are picked later, maintaining acidity but adding aromatics. These full, floral wines defy Pinot Grigio's reputation and can be very attractive and still well priced. The popularity of the wines has seen plantings mushroom in Italy: from 3,500ha in 1990 to over 17,000 today. It's found all over the north-east of Italy, mostly in Veneto, but also in Trentino and Fruili, where the best and richest examples come from. 


Blason Pinot Grigio 2013, Fruili ($9.99)
This a good example of a fuller version of Pinot Grigio: very floral (honeysuckle, acacia), with stone fruits (peach, apricot) and tropical fruits (melon, pineapple). The finish is quite spicy, with nutmeg and ginger. All at a very low price. ✪✪✪✪


Cortese is the grape of Gavi, a town in Piemonte. The grape is notable for high acidity and mineral aromas. It also produces high yields, which can lead to overproduction and rather neutral wines. This is what happened in the 1980s, when the popularity of Gavi declined after its heyday in the 1960s and 70s due to an excess of insipid wines. The quality of Gavi is rising again, producing good value, faintly aromatic, refreshing, and lightly rich wines. The best wines are labelled Gavi di Gavi or Gavi di Tassarolo, and the most concentrated wines come from the subzone of Rovereto.


Terre da Vino Agricole Masseria del Carmenitani 2014, Gavi di Gavi ($11.99)
Sweet, ripe fruits on the nose of melon, watermelon, and pineapple, with floral notes of roses and apple blossom. The palate doesn't quite follow up on the appealing aromas of the nose, but does have a good, refreshing acidity. Again, good value for money, without being particularly exciting. ✪✪✪


Garganega is a quality grape often associated with simple, bland wines. Like Cortese, this is all down to yields: keep the yields low and the character of the grape really comes out with a dry mineral quality and white flowers, green apples, citrus, and apricots. It's the grape of Soave, a small hilltop village near Lake Garda in Veneto. Soave must be 70% Garganega; the other 30% of the blend can add to or detract from Garganega's qualities. Basic Soave is produced on flat vineyards, with Trebbiano di Toscano in the blend. The best Soave is produced on hillside vineyards under the Soave Classico DOCG, either 100% Garganega or with Trebbiano di Soave (which is actually Verdicchio) in the blend. It's this kind of confusion which doesn't help the Italian wine industry.


Dama del Rovere Tremenalto, Soave Classico 2012 ($18.99)
There's an astonishing mineral character driving through this wine (which is 100% Garganega), with piercing acidity and a very dry finish. The fruits - green apples and peaches - hide behind that concentrated acidic dryness. There is something almost Riesling like in its mineral, petrol aromas and its long, dry, acidic finish. An intense, quality, but rather difficult wine. ✪✪✪✪✪

Ribolla Gialla

Found in north-east Italy in the Fruili-Venezia-Guilia region, wines from Ribolla Gialla were drunk by the Venetian nobility in the 1200s. It's vinified in a variety of ways, including oak ageing, skin contact, and being made into sparkling wines. Most commonly it is a light-bodied dry white wine, with high acidity, and citrus, lemon-pepper aromas. It is at its best in the hillside Colli Orientali del Fruili and Collio DOCs of Fruili, producing delicate wines in the latter and fuller bodied wines in the former.


Vigneti Sant'Helena Ribolla Gialla 2011, Venezia IGP ($19.99)
Unfortunately, @kt_canfield drank this while I was away in France (for which I can't really blame her) so I didn't get a chance to try it. She has, however, repeatedly told me how good it was and provided me with her concise tasting notes: light, crisp, citrus, and orange peel.

Ermacora Ribolla Gialla 2013, Colli Orientali del Fruili ($15.99)
Well, I had to go out and buy another to try for myself. And naturally it wasn't as good: sharp, tart citrus fruits, lacking concentration of flavours or structure. The interesting thing is that the better wine (according to my wife at least) was an IGP, rather than from the more recognised DOC - the best Italian wines can often come from outside the hierarchy.


Also known as Favorita in Piemonte and Rolle in France, Vermentino is at its best on the island of Sardinia where proximity to the sea gives the wines a gripping, saline quality. Where it's grown and how it's made result in quite different wines: from light, young, and refreshing to heavier, weightier wines that have seen some lees or even oak ageing. Aromas can also vary from citrus to tropical fruits, but marked by floral and herbal characteristics.


Vermentino Cantina di Gallura 2013, Sardinia ($17.99)
Unforunately, this wine was corked - most of the corked wines I have had recently have been Italian, which is becoming something of an issue.


A wine from the Kerner grape was thrown into a blind tasting of Italian whites as a surprise element. Kerner is a German crossing of Trollinger (which is a black grape) and Riesling, and of all the German crossings it's the one that comes closest to Riesling in its flavours and very good acidity. In Italy's Alto-Adige, many German grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Müller-Thurgau are found, as the area is heavily Germanic (it's also called Südtirol). The best vineyards are 600-800m high, producing white wines and Pinot Nero with great acidity and aromatics.


Kerner Cantina Valle Isarzo 2013, Alto Adige ($18.99)
Lots of ripe fruits on the nose, with pears, grapes, oranges, and peaches, and floral notes of honeysuckle and acacia, followed by a wet stone mineral texture and a spicy cinnamon finish on the palate. The alcohol was a little high (at 14%) but with quite concentrated flavours. ✪✪✪✪


Another German crossing that is at its best in the Alto Adige. Müller-Thurgau has a bad reputation and rightly so: in Germany, it's been valued for its high yields more than the quality of the wine it produces. In the 1970s and 80s, it was planted far more than Riesling and was responsible for bulk wines such as Blue Nun and Black Tower. It was propogated by a Dr. Müller from the Swiss canton of Thurgau in 1882; he thought he was crossing Riesling with Silvaner, but was actually crossing Riesling with a forgettable grape called Madeleine Royale. Despite its widespread planting in Germany, it's actually at its best elsewhere, particularly Alto Adige.


Kettmeir Müller-Thurgau 2013, Alto Adige ($19.99)
Tasting this wine blind, I would confuse it for a Sauvignon Blanc. It has a very floral, herbaceous nose, with grass, nettles, lemon-pepper, and elderflower, with a citrus lime zest kick on the palate followed by a spicy ginger, nutmeg finish. ✪✪✪✪

Each of these wines is under $20 and of a consistently good quality, demonstrating that Italian whites represent very good value for money. None of them has seen any kind of ageing on their lees or in oak, instead allowing the character of the grape to come through. Despite the different grapes, there are similarities between all the wines which mark a kind of Italian style: high acidity, floral aromas of acacia and honeysuckle, and spicy palates of ginger and nutmeg. None of the wines stands out as outstanding - though the Soave came close - but they all show an improved consistency in the standard of Italian white wine.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Burgundy Trip

Something of a holiday and a pilgrimage, I visited Burgundy to see the vineyards, taste the wines, and simply soak up the atmosphere of this famous winemaking region. It was romantic and thrilling to stand next to the great vineyards I had previously only read about and walk through the sleepy villages whose names adorn bottles of wines around the world. But it was also a chance to appreciate the French way of life - the rich food, the local market, the hours spent doing as little as possible. Whether you're into wine or not, Burgundy is a great place to visit, beautiful, historic, and with a high appreciation of the finer things in life.

horse ploughing the field, Clos-de-Bèze Grand Cru, Gevrey-Chambertin


I stayed in Beaune, the main town of the Côte de Beaune. This proved to be a great base, not only because of its location. It's a vibrant town, brought to life by the wine trade but with beautiful architecture, good but surprisingly affordable restaurants, and a lively nightlife (well, for a French town). Even more surprising given my many visits across France, the locals were extremely friendly and welcoming.


the villages

It doesn't take long to get from Beaune to the famous wine villages. Hiring a bike is a good way to explore the nearest villages: Pommard is just down the road, and before you realise it you're in Volnay. The land is quite flat, the greatest vineyards on gentle slopes that rise up to plateaux home to forests rather than vines. The villages are small and sleepy, with a restaurant or two to cater for passing tourists. They're so close to one another, the back streets connecting each village, separated just by a world-class vineyard or two.


Beaune is slightly further from the Côtes de Nuits, but it's still an easy drive. This northern part of the Côte d'Or is less beautiful and the villages (especially Vosne-Romanée) more austere and less welcoming. It is home, however, to vineyards so famous and expensive that it's startling to see them lying protected by nothing more than a low stone wall.

the vineyards

There's little about standing next to a Grand Cru to suggest that it produces wine worth hundreds, if not thousands, of euros a bottle. Only a church-like stone gate distinguishes them from the vineyards around them. All the vines look identical, trained on the single Guyot system. Many producers in Burgundy are organic or biodynamic and the vineyards have lots of beautiful wild flowers growing between the vines.

Visiting the vineyards is something of a religious experience: like a cathedral, they are peaceful, secluded, and have been in the same spot for over a thousand years.

the wineries

Walking up to some of the most expensive vineyards in the world presents no problem, but actually tasting the wine made from them does. The wineries are located in small, family buildings in the villages and are largely closed to the public, very few of them offering tastings.

One winery that has a tasting room is Domaine LeFlaive in Puligny-Montrachet, though it's pricey: €40 for four tasting samples. In Beaune, Joseph Drouhin give a 90-minute tour of their historic winery, costing €38 per person, visiting the cold, ancient underground cellars with wines dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century and war tales of resistance fighters escaping the Nazis. At the end of the tour, there's a chance to taste six of Drouhin's wines.

old press at Joseph Drouhin

the French

My sister and I stopped off at a wine shop in the small village of Morey-St-Denis. The owner was happy to give us a tasting of three of the village's wines: a Village and two Premiers Crus. After tasting them, my sister asked if she could taste the Village wine again (wishing to save some money and buy a wine she could actually drink now). The woman paused and reddened: "I don't think that would be possible. It is not easy to taste a Village wine after a Premier Cru. You would not be able to appreciate it." "But I just want to see if I still like it." A deep intake of breath, a shake of the head, and a reluctant pour. Nevertheless, my sister bought the wine. "Do you have a cellar?" the woman asked. "No." The woman cradled the bottle close to her: "Then how are you going to age the wine?"

the wines

This is the major problem with the wines of Burgundy. In the area itself, the wines are not that expensive (certainly cheaper than they are in the UK or US) but they need plenty of time to age before they are ready to drink. The whites we tasted from the 2010 and 11 vintages are still quite closed, while the reds are intense and surprisingly tannic. If you don't have the patience or wherewithal to age the wines, then it's difficult to justify buying them. However, most wine shops and restaurants do sell wine from past vintages, and I came away from Joseph Drouhin with a 1998 Côte de Beaune for just €35.

A Burgundy tractor
This was an educational and enlightening trip on which I was able to discover further the nuances between the wines of the different villages. Morey-St-Denis produces fragrant but powerful Pinot Noir; Volnay's is delicately appealing yet with surprising depth; while the wines of Santenay, at the bottom of the Côte de Beaune, are intense, spicy, but floral and fruity. (My favourite wine of the trip was Lucien Muzard's 2010 Santenay from the Maladière Premier Cru.) The trip allowed me to taste wines from the 1998 and 2001 vintages, just a short drive away from the vineyards from they which they originated. And, despite its fame, Burgundy can still surprise: some of my favourite wines I tasted came from Maranges, an appellation covering several small villages near Santenay which I had never previously heard of. Whether you're a casual wine lover or a wine geek like me, Burgundy, with its food, its history, and its ambience, will delight.

La Tâche

Thursday, 16 April 2015


The leading figure in Beaujolais is Georges DuBoeuf, who has probably done more to attract attention to Beaujolais over the last 50 years than anyone else. He created and promoted the commercialisation of Beaujolais Nouveau, but also produces serious Cru wine. I met him once and he told me, with a chauvinism only a charming, elderly Frenchman could get away with: "Beaujolais is a woman you flirt with, maybe spend a night with, and then forget about. Burgundy is a woman you fall in love with for the rest of your life but can never afford to marry. Bordeaux is a woman you marry and then divorce." 

Having spent a weekend in Beaujolais I have to disagree with Georges: these are wines I will come back to. Probably the most underappreciated and least understood of all of France's wine regions, Beaujolais is known for simple, fruity, inexpensive wine, most notoriously in the once ubiquitous Beaujolais Nouveau. My recent trip to Beaujolais uncovered a very different side to the region: a scenic, sometimes dramatic, and isolated area sheltering hilltop villages little changed over the years. Dirt tracks lead to dusty tasting rooms and weathered winemakers shyly pouring world-class wines. Quality may vary, but when Beaujolais is good it's as distinctive and memorable as any of France's best wines - and much more affordable.

view from Chiroubles

where is it?

In its rare moments of pretension, Beaujolais calls itself "southern Burgundy" to associate itself with its more illustrious neighbour. Although administratively within Burgundy, Beaujolais couldn't be much more different. The soil is sandy and rocky, dominated by granite. There are vast plains churning out basic Beaujolais, rising to steep, high undulating hills for the quality wines. It's a beautiful region to visit, even if there is little going on: this is an area time has little touched.

Chapelle de la Madone, Fleurie, looks down on hillside vines

the grape

98% of Beaujolais is planted with Gamay, an easy to grow grape that produces fruity, immediate, purple-coloured wine. The vines are planted using the gobelet system - small, stubby vines reaching upwards into a outstretched claw. This allows dense plantings - between 9 and 13,000 vines per hectare which is some of the densest plantings in the world - to encourage high yields. Much maligned, Gamay is always fun but occasionally quite serious.

gobelet vines and granite soils

the appellations

winery inside the church at Juliénas
There are three tiers to Beaujolais. Around 50% of production is the basic Beaujolais AC, which is cheap, fruity, and forgettable. As the vineyards rise from the flat plains, the grapes qualify for Beaujolais-Villages, a significant step up in quality which accounts for 25% of production. The greatest wines come from the ten Crus, in the midst of dramatically situated vineyards. Here, the cheerful fruitiness of Gamay is accompanied by an unexpected structure, concentration, and intensity. Despite being close to each other, each Cru has a distinct profile, from tannic Moulin-à-Vent, floral Fleurie, spicy Juliénas, to ageworthy Morgon. These wines are fruity enough to be drunk young and on their own, but substantial enough to be aged and drunk with hearty, meaty dishes. 

From the 1960s until at least the 1990s, Beaujolais was known for Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine almost straight from the barrel for immediate consumption. The novelty of drinking wine that's only just been fermented created a fashion which led to it being responsible for over 60% of Beaujolais sales in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, Nouveau has dominated perceptions of Beaujolais and it's difficult to convince consumers that the region is capable of more than these simple, fruity wines. Nouveau is still big in Japan. 

the wines

I had a lot of fun tasting Beaujolais over the course of just a couple of days, sampling wines straight from the cask or drinking it with lamb, chicken, salads, and on its own. This is an extremely versatile wine, as evidenced by two informal visits to producers in the Fleurie Cru. Unlike Burgundy, wineries are open to public visits, though you might have to interpret a few wayward signposts to find what you're looking for. 

Domaine de la Madone, Fleurie
Located on the top of a steep hillside besides a small chapel, Jean-Marc Dupres makes wines solely within the Fleurie appellation. There is quite a range, including a fresh, floral, aromatic Viognier (€9; ✪✪✪✪), the only white grape planted in Fleurie. Of the traditional styles of Beaujolais, the Cuvée Speciale (€12.80; ✪✪✪✪✪) from old vines was most noteworthy: fruity, spicy, and intense. Dupres also makes a couple of wines using oak-ageing, also from old vines: the Prestige (€14.50; ✪✪✪✪✪) is aged in old oak barrels, giving it a round, smooth complexity, while the 1889 (€27; ✪✪✪✪✪), made partly from vines planted that year, sees a prolonged 25-day maceration (the norm in Beaujolais is 10-14 days), with two years in new oak, marrying the fruity profile of Gamay with cocoa, chocolate, and coffee from the oak.

Clos de la Roillette, Fleurie
At the bottom of a dirt track outside the village of Fleurie, we were hosted by winemaker Alain Coudert's shy, softly-spoken son in a cellar that probably hadn't been cleaned in several decades. Once again, the most interesting wines were from old vines, this time planted in the 1930s. The Cuvée Tardive (c.€15; ✪✪✪✪✪) was attractive, complex, and, with gripping tannins and high acidity, ageworthy. Likewise with the Griffe de Marquis, which I tasted from the 2013, 2012, and 2007 vintages. The 2007 (✪✪✪✪✪✪) was a magnificent example of how Beaujolais can defy preconceptions: a gamey, meaty, animal nose, yet remarkably fresh on the palate with high acidity and a long, fresh, spicy finish.

Where else in the world can you leave a tasting room with a bottle of quality wine that you can drink later that evening or age for a few years - and for just €7.20, as we did with Clos de la Roilette's Brouilly (✪✪✪✪)? I know of no other region where such outstanding wines retail at such affordable prices.

At its best, Beaujolais is unassuming rather than simple. Too unassuming perhaps: Beaujolais needs to assert its quality more confidently to change people's perceptions of the wines. It could do with developing a proper tourist infrastructure, to help visitors explore this beautiful region - even at the cost of opening up its timeless nature to the twenty-first century. As it is, enjoy it while it's still vastly underappreciated.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Washington Wine Trip

I've written about Washington wine before, but this week I had the opportunity to explore the state's wine further with an exhaustive trip through the many AVAs. Washington wine is at an exciting stage right now, as ambitious winemakers and grape-growers match varieties with the best sites. I came into Washington hoping to discover which grape variety expresses the state, but left convinced that Washington, like the greatest regions of France, is best understood through the distinctive terroirs of each AVA. This makes understanding Washington wine complicated, but it's well worth it as this is a fascinating and very varied wine region.

ignore Puget Sound: most of Washington's grapes are grown in Columbia Valley

the climate

Over 99% of Washington's wine is produced in Columbia Valley, a large, all-encompassing AVA in arid eastern Washington. In the growing season, the days are hot and long - Washington receives 8 days more sunshine a year than California - but the nights are cold with temperatures falling as low as 10 degrees. This wide diurnal variation prolongs the growing season, allowing the grapes to ripen fully while retaining high acidity. This acidity is a defining characteristic of both whites and reds, giving the wines a vibrancy not always present in warm regions.

the soils

the basalt soils beneath Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla. Some soils are so deep and rocky that wells dig 400m down before finding water.

Washington is a geologist's paradise, with a huge amount of different soils within vineyards let alone across the state. 13,000 years ago, the Missoula floods swept across eastern Washington depositing a variety of soils that otherwise wouldn't be there. At high altitudes, the original volcanic soils still remain. Changing from site to site, these soils are the reason that Washington has such a varied terroir. Furthermore, these difficult soils, combined with very low winter temperatures (winter freeze is a problem), mean that Washington remains phylloxera-free, all the vines planted on their own roots.

the grapes

In the 1990s, Merlot was the state's signature grape variety but fashion has seen it overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon. I feel Washington's greatest wines are from Syrah, a variety which for some reason is a difficult sell throughout the USA. I was also extremely impressed with the Malbecs I tasted: like Mendoza, the diurnal temperature variation allows the grape to ripen slowly and fully, bringing out all its phenolic qualities. Whatever the variety, Washington's reds share an aromatic florality, ripe red and black fruits, firm tannins, and high acidity. There's an Old World-New World overlap in the wines: fruit forward, but delicate, and with an enlivening acidity.

the many grapes planted in Red Willow vineyard over the years
The whites are less consistent. Riesling used to be the most planted grape because its natural high acidity suits the climate, but it rarely demonstrates sufficient complexity. It's been surpassed by Chardonnay, which for some time producers were making in imitation of big, oaky California examples. Chardonnay is beginning to be planted on more suitable, high altitude sites, leading to more restrained wines with better acidity, but I don't think it best represents the terroir of Washington. Sauvignon Blanc perhaps does this most successfully, with a full body, floral aromas, and a dry, mineral finish, while Viognier, which is often flabby in warm regions, retains sufficient acidity alongside its characteristic floral and stone fruit aromas.

the AVAs

For a region that is little known outside the state, Washington has an excessive number of AVAs (13). Even more confusingly, three of them spread into Oregon and a "fourteenth," The Rocks District, is entirely within Oregon. However, having visited many of the AVAs, it's clear that each one has its own distinct identity. It may take some time and a great deal of consumer education, but Washington is best understood by breaking it down into its different areas rather than by grape variety.

Walla Walla Valley

Seven Hills Vineyard, Walla Walla
Perhaps Washington's best known AVA due to an impressive marketing campaign, Walla Walla is in actual fact quite small, with just over 500ha planted even though the AVA stretches into Oregon. The best vineyard is Seven Hills, which takes in several small, windswept hills at the southern end of the valley. It receives 300mm of rain annually and growers have had to drill a well over 300m deep to find 10,000-year-old water to irrigate the site.

Stand-out wine: L'Ecole No. 41 Estate Perigee 2012 ($49) ✪✪✪✪✪
A Bordeaux blend with beautiful ripe, perfumed fruits, and herbal, menthol, bitter chocolate, and mocha aromas. The tannins are firm but integrated, giving the wine great structure.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater

a typical rocky vineyard in The Rocks District
This new AVA is entirely in Oregon, but within the Washington Walla Walla AVA. This is extremely confusing, but makes some kind of sense. The soils of Washington do not stop at the political boundary and it will need continued co-operation between the Washington and Oregon wine boards to spread knowledge of the region's different wines. The name of the AVA is clumsy but again makes sense: the soils are extremely rocky (unlike the rest of Walla Walla). The Syrahs here are particularly interesting: floral, perfumed, almost hedonistic, yet with restrained fruits.

Stand-out wine: Delmas 2012 (92.5% Syrah, 7.5% Viognier) $65 ✪✪✪✪✪✪
From the driving force behind the creation of The Rocks District AVA, this Syrah/Viognier blend has a dark, intense complexity, with coffee, truffles, dark chocolate, and liquorice, all lightened with floral and herbal aromas of lavender, myrrh, ginger, and orange peel. Also worth mentioning are Proper's Estate Syrah ($42) from both 2012 and 2013 (both ✪✪✪✪✪) and Balboa's 2012 Malbec ($34; ✪✪✪✪✪).

Horse Heaven Hills

Horse Heaven Hills, overlooking the Columbia river and Oregon

A high, undulating plateau taking in over 4,000ha of vines, Horse Heaven Hills includes one of Washington's greatest vineyards, Champoux. This vast AVA (it covers a total of 228,000ha) is windswept and bleak, reminding me of the Yorkshire moors without the rain. 24 different black grape varieties are planted, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate.

Stand-out wine: Andrew Will Sorella 2009 ($85) ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪
One of the US's great red wines, the Sorella is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, varying with each vintage. This is a prime expression of the Champoux vineyard, first planted in 1972. As with Washington's best wines, the Sorella has firm, drying tannins which give the wine a gripping mouthfeel, lifted by a vibrant acidity. The fruits are soft and ripe, yet delicate, elegant, and restrained. This is a serious wine with long ageing potential. A year and a half ago, I visited the Andrew Will winery on Vashon Island near Seattle, which is one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.

Red Mountain

steep Viognier vines at the top of Red Mountain
The smallest AVA is where the Washington story began, with Jim Holmes and John Williams planting vines in 1972. Jim Holmes claims they didn't know what they were doing, but there may be some false modesty at play. The small mountain, so barren it had never been planted with any crop before, has a varied, rugged topography that results in outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. This is the AVA that may push Washington on to the international map: Duckhorn of Napa have recently planted here, and Aquilani of Canada have bought over 250 of the AVA's potential 1,600ha.

Stand-out wine: Force Majeure Estate Syrah ($65) ✪✪✪✪✪✪
A rich, lush nose of red and black fruits, with a peppery spiciness, but floral, perfumed, and balanced - a typical Red Mountain combination.


Yakima Valley

Syrah vines leading up to Red Willow's chapel
The biggest AVA besides Columbia Valley, the quality and style of Yakima wine fluctuates. Its best and most historic vineyard is Red Willow, first planted by the Sawyer farming family in the early 1970s. Once again Cabernet and Syrah excel - the Syrah grown on the steep south-facing slope below the chapel looks and tastes French.

Stand-out wine: Owen Roe Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($72) ✪✪✪✪✪
From the original 1973 plantings on the Red Willow vineyard, this is another perfumed Cabernet, with cedar, oak, pencil lead, cocoa, chocolate, and black tea. Gripping tannins and a full mouthfeel belie a long, subtle finish. 

Columbia Gorge

With just over 150ha, Columbia Gorge is the most unusual of Washington's AVAs. It again extends into Oregon and its wine culture is closer to Portland than Seattle. Rainfall varies from 250 to 1,700mm, depending on location - like the other AVAs, topography, climate, and soils vary remarkably. Due to the cooler, wetter climate, white grapes dominate, particularly Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Chardonnay.

Stand-out wine: Savage Grace Chardonnay 2013 ($26) ✪✪✪✪✪
From Celilo vineyard, which is considered the finest in the AVA. On a mountainside with volcanic soils, the climate is maritime, receiving up to 1,250mm of rain each year. This cool, wet climate results in light, acidic wines such as this Chardonnay from up-and-coming winemaker Michael Savage. This wine stands comparison with the best Chablis: citrus, mineral aromas, with light cream and baking apples on the palate, with a crisp acidity.

Columbia Valley

Many wineries source grapes from individual vineyards all over the state, which will be labelled Columbia Valley. It's difficult to generalise about these wines, which will vary according to site, blend, variety, and the winemaker.

Stand-out wine: Avennia Justine Red Rhône Blend 2012 ($40) ✪✪✪✪✪
Although Syrah emerged as my favourite Washington grape, a handful of winemakers are also making wine from other Rhône varieties. Maryhill of Columbia Gorge make an excellent Mourvèdre ($45; ✪✪✪✪✪), demonstrating how exciting that grape can be in the right hands. The Justine from Avennia is 49% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache, and 23% Syrah. Dark, earthy, and floral, this is voluptuous, immediate, and powerful: Washington wine in a nutshell.