In Pacific Northwest, wines for adventurous drinkers that offer something different
Biodynamic in Oregon, Bordeaux blends in Washington – northwestern states proves America’s wine talent stretches beyond Napa Valley’s famous labels. A shame most wineries are too small to export to Hong Kong - so why not go there?
The neighbouring American states of Washington and Oregon share a border and a viticultural area (Columbia Valley), but that’s just about where the similarities end. North of the Columbia River, Oregon’s earthy, natural spirit gives way to Washington’s experimental ethos, where winemakers take their oenologist role seriously by testing different grape varieties and winemaking techniques.
Visiting recently as part of an Institute of Masters of Wine tour, I was struck by the expansion of Washington – America’s second largest producer behind California – from a few dozen wineries in the 1980s to more than 350 growers, 900-plus wine brands, and about 20,000 hectares of plantings. The region consists mainly of large vineyards on big tracts of land planted inland in the state’s far east, where the climate is dryer and the weather warmer.
Washington’s emphasis is in crafting cabernet and merlot, with some attention to syrah. Eastern Washington’s desert-like conditions create full-flavoured, robust wines that are enhanced by spicy oak flavours. These are wines meant for big American steak dinners – or in Hong Kong, they pair well with Cantonese braised beef. Master of wine Madeleine Stenwreth described the Betz Family Winery’s Père de Famille as having “beautifully structured tannins”, that demonstrate why “cab is king” in the region.
Despite success with gutsy Bordeaux varieties, Washington’s winemakers can’t help but experiment, cultivating 70 different grapes across 14 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
Walla Walla, in eastern Washington’s high desert landscape, produces flavourful, aromatic red wines that have more tartness than California reds. Chardonnay is Washington’s most planted white variety, and the state boasts the biggest acreage of riesling in the US.
Viticulture here is challenging – nights are cold, summers shorter, and the region suffers harsh winters – but the best sites produce great wines.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Washington’s winelands is its soil history: forged by multiple cataclysmic events of fire and ice, it was shaped first by prehistoric volcanoes, then the Missoula Floods of the last ice age. The massive flood waves smashed through everything in their way, leaving layer upon layer of free-draining, nutrient-poor gravel and silt, and forming the Columbia Valley wine region.
Oregon – cooler than Washington in both climate and attitude – is greener, with soft rolling hills and gentle terrain, not unlike my hometown area of Sonoma County. Here, you’ll find wine country and landmarks with names like Rogue River, Columbia Gorge and Grizzly Peak. Oregon’s microclimates and soil, featuring mountains, high desert and river valleys, set the scene for some groovy wines.
Producers tend to be small, artisanal and closely tied to the land. Almost 50 per cent of vineyards are certified sustainable, which adds to Oregon’s air of rusticity.
“We do not make wine by recipe here,” says Rollin Soles at Roco Winery. “We are a wine region where we have very distinct differences vintage to vintage.”
Master of wine Rod Smith swears that Soles’ left-of-centre The Stalker 2014 is enhanced (yes, enhanced) by incorporating 10-day-aged stalks at the start of fermentation. Far out, man!
Oregon is best known for pinot noir, and what I found exciting about the Oregon tastings is how producers now have very clear ideas as to which valleys and hills create distinct flavour profiles in their wines.
The Eyrie Vineyards’ head winemaker Jason Lett told us that Oregon has an identifiable sense of place. “Terroir takes 500 years,” he concedes, “but a sense of place, that comes more quickly.” The winery was certified organic in 2013 and has never used herbicides, pesticides or irrigation. For the many lovers of burgundy in Hong Kong, much of the pinot noir from Oregon is as close as you can get to the types found on the “golden slopes”.
Oregon winemakers refuse to be pigeonholed to pinot alone, though. In their sometimes ramshackle, always charming tasting rooms, they showcase an impressive range of varieties. The dry, hot Rogue Valley produces great chardonnay and cabernet franc; Umpqua Valley excels in tempranillo; elsewhere there is commendable albarino, viognier, malbec, gewürztraminer and syrah. Oregon’s diversity and laid-back scene help make it an unpretentious, affordable wine region.
Sadly for Hong Kong, most of these boutique producers are not large enough to actively promote to our markets – for the moment, anyway. But if you’ve had it with the hot, wet Hong Kong summer, a summer holiday is a great way to experience Washington and Oregon wines. Empty roads give easy access to relaxed wine country and uncrowded tasting rooms.
In Oregon, explore Beaux Frères, The Eyrie Vineyards and Roco Winery. In Washington, visit Cadence Winery and Col Solare Winery’s Red Mountain estate, a joint venture by Italy’s Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s oldest and largest winery.
How to get there
Delta Airlines flies between Hong Kong and Seattle