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WRITTEN BY PAUL GREGUTT
IT IS NO exaggeration to say that I taste at least 5,000 wines annually, and probably considerably more, if you count quick sips. But on average, 20 a day, five days a week, year 'round. Which ones are the best? Which do I remember, months or even years later?
Surprisingly, it is not always the wines with the designer bottles, the premium price tags. Sometimes it is a wine that stakes out a whole new territory, such as the Abacela tempranillo I tasted recently. Who knew tempranillo could grow in Oregon?
Sometimes an older wine, such as the 1981 Woodward Canyon Dedication Series Cabernet tasted this past spring with winemaker Rick Small, shines a spotlight on a life's work. The most memorable wine may be a special-occasion bubbly, or a burger-night mutt.
A stand-out wine exceeds expectations. It resonates in unusual ways, like a favorite song. Its value far exceeds its cost. I like to think of such wines as affordable luxuries. Make no mistake we are speaking of luxuries here, not necessarily everyday value wines. I find an astonishing number of mediocre wines priced at $40, $50 and higher. Most are simply not worth it. The ones listed today, in my opinion, are.
Here are three cases. The third is a global mix. The first two, one white, one red, include wines all of the Pacific Northwest, wines I know well, taste often and truly love. I have included a number of smaller, specialist wineries whose wines are made in limited quantities. It is our good fortune to live here, where the wines are sold. Never hesitate to call the winery directly if you can't find a wine at a local retailer. The wineries often hang onto a few cases that are sold out, and may be cajoled into parting with a bottle or two. I hope you will let me know which ones you particularly enjoy.
Sineann 2001 Pinot Gris; $15. A precision-crafted blend of three excellent Oregon vineyards, from an exceptional producer. The fruit flavors favor pineapple and pear, nicely balanced against fresh, natural acids and tannins. Hints of honey, caramel and spice complete the show.
WillaKenzie 2001 Pinot Gris; $18. Consistently one of the top pinot gris in Oregon, this is made from organically farmed vineyards with meticulous attention to detail. Rich and sensuous, the wine unwraps its ripe fruit in layers of pear and apricot, underscored with bright spice and finished with a lip-smacking lick of vanilla cream.
Novelty Hill 2000 "Klipsun" Sauvignon Blanc; $19. This is Novelty Hill's first release, a gem from consulting winemaker Mike Januik, well-known for his own wines as well as the many years he spent at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Impeccable Klipsun vineyard (Red Mountain appellation) grapes power a mouthfilling, fragrant, fruit-loaded, food-friendly white wine.
King Estate 1998 Chardonnay; $10. Though best known for their vast plantings of pinot gris, Oregon's King Estate does a fine job with chardonnay, as this lush and fruity example shows. Bursting with rich pineapple and peach flavors, hints of vanilla, honey and butterscotch, the wine expands through a full-throttle finish.
Barnard Griffin 2000 "Wahluke Slope" Chardonnay; $19. Rich and satisfying, this wide-open Washington wine brims with full, fat fruit flavor, a generous complement of new oak, and a juicy, oily, mouthcoating "grip." It finishes with a pleasing burst of roasted nuts.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2000 "Indian Wells" Chardonnay; $21. A wonderful new release from this premier Washington producer. Tasted with the winery's Cold Creek vineyard chardonnay, it made an interesting contrast. Both were excellent, but the Indian Wells reached for richer, toastier, rounder and more generous flavors. A beguiling mix of pink grapefruit, pineapple, mango and apricot fruit flavors.
Hogue 2001 "Genesis" Viognier; $15. Goofy new label aside, this is a solid effort from Hogue, a pioneering Washington winery recently acquired by the Vincor company out of Toronto. I love viognier for its vibrant, often floral fruit expression. This one perfectly captures a mix of green fruits and berries, hints of citrus and mineral, all without intrusive oak.
Waterbrook 2001 Viognier; $16. Waterbrook is one of the unsung heroes of the Walla Walla wine revolution, an early (1984) starter that consistently delivers quality at a fair price. Sweetly perfumed with citrus blossoms, this is a juicy white wine showing ripe citrus, melon and light tropical fruit. Hints of anise and mineral add complexity through a long, luscious finish.
Three Rivers 2001 "Biscuit Ridge" Late Harvest Gewürztraminer; $20. Few domestic bottles capture the fragrant power and floral punch of Alsatian-style gewürztraminer as well as this Walla Walla beauty. Labeled late harvest, it is neither cloying nor heavy. Delightfully scented with spices and flowers, tasting of exotic fruits and sweet and dusty spices.
Walla Walla Vintners 2000 Merlot; $25. Fans of Leonetti have noted the similarities of style here. This decadent merlot is loaded with layer upon layer of rich, textured flavors that Ben and Jerry would love caramel, cocoa, roasted nuts, vanilla and sweet milk chocolate. Happily, there is plenty of fruit to support all the oak.
Quilceda Creek 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon; $60. Quilceda goes from strength to strength with its tightly crafted, muscular cabernets. Firm, cherry fruit is edged with mixed spices from barrel aging, and the wine, released quite young, is one of a handful in Washington with a track record for long-term aging. No Washington cabernet more perfectly captures the combination of lush, Napa-style fruit and Bordeaux-like precision.
Caterina 1999 "Willard Family" Cabernet Sauvignon; $27. With its exciting single-vineyard releases of "Willard Family" and "DuBrul" merlots and cabs, Spokane-based Caterina has surpassed anything the winery has ever done. This exceptional bottle features fully ripe, forward fruit, with classic cabernet cassis and black cherry fruit. Streaks of earth and iron suggest the prominence of place, and the wine has the compact power to age for a decade or more.
Sandhill 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon; $25. Classic scents of black fruits, laced with leaf and herb, lead into a firm, confident, balanced wine that is clearly structured for the long haul. Sandhill is one of the newer wineries on Red Mountain, the exciting new appellation at the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley.
C.R. Sandidge 2000 "Minick Vineyard" Syrah; $28. Ray Sandidge is the talented winemaker for Kestrel, and this new label is his own. He gets fruit from top Yakima Valley sites such as this Minick vineyard syrah. One of three he will release, this is a fine debut, featuring young, sappy fruit, plenty of tart acid, well-managed tannins and a light touch with the oak.
Domaine Drouhin 1999 "Laurène" Pinot Noir; $50. This new bottling of Drouhin's reserve pinot is from the best Oregon vintage of the past half decade. It's concentrated and rich, yet retains a feminine elegance. Black cherry and raspberries define the fruit; the oak is applied with measured grace.
Patton Valley 2000 Pinot Noir; $28. A first release from a new Oregon vintner comes across with a very friendly, fresh, fruity style. Spicy cranberry and strawberry scents unfold into a well-made, soft and smooth pinot, with supple tannins and just a hint of barrel toast. If you cannot find it, try contacting the winery directly at 503-985-3445.
Ryan Patrick 1999 Meritage Red; $28. Somehow this bold, vivid wine has slipped under the radar and is still available. A Washington-style Bordeaux blend, it sets up with seamless layers of red, blue and black berries that lead into accents of mineral and anise. The tannins are proportionate and the oak applied with a light touch.
Leonetti Cellar 2000 Sangiovese; $50. The same grape that goes into the best of Tuscany's Chiantis and Brunellos shines here, with rich cherry fruit and nuances of leather and tobacco. This wine definitely captures the irresistible Leonetti style, yet it seems to hang around the wine shops a lot longer than the cab and merlot.
Dessert: Bodegas Dios Baco Oloroso Sherry; $16. This is an exceptionally rich dessert wine, yet it is dry. The flavors of roasted nuts, caramel and toffee slowly explode in the mouth, then finish with a resonant echo that demands another sip.
Wolf Blass 2000 Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon; $12. Here come the Aussies, again, with a stellar bottle of cab at a great price. Black cherries and deep plum flavors set up a muscular, tannic wine with a substantial finish. Vanilla cream and coffee flavors suggest some aging in good barrels.
Edna Valley 2001 "Paragon" Chardonnay; $13. This proves that not all California chardonnay is either boring or overpriced. Here are pineapple/tropical fruit flavors in abundance, creamy vanilla, buttered toast and crème caramel.
Wynns 1999 Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; $14. Wonderful complexity can be found in this dark, coffee-scented wine. Tart cassis and cherry fruit sets up a juicy, biting middle; then the coffee/cocoa notes slide in, along with some bone dry, slightly chalky tannins.
Trefethen 2000 Dry Riesling; $16. This Napa stalwart makes a dry riesling as good as any in the country. Loaded with scents of blossoms, minerals and citrus, it has an elegant, dense intensity.
Steele 2000 Chardonnay "Steele Cuvée"; $18. Jed Steele rose to fame and fortune making the immensely popular Kendall Jackson chardonnays. More recently he has developed his own brand and, predictably, chardonnay is a strong suit. This blend of seven vineyards is rich and creamy, full and fat with flavors of lime and vanilla. Yet it retains focus and lingers shamelessly.
Kim Crawford 2001 "Boyszone Vineyard" Pinot Gris; $18. New Zealand is carving out a following for its racy, grassy sauv blancs, but pinot gris like this is likely to win even more applause. Pungent, oily tropical scents give way to a delicious bottle, jammed with rich fruit and toasty graham cracker.
Cline 2000 "Small Berry" Mourvèdre; $32. A bottle of this new release lit up a recent party. From a century-old Contra Costa County vineyard site, it is an intense expression of this unusual red Rhone grape. Deeply colored and softly tannic, it brings concentrated flavors of raspberry, blueberry and loganberry into focus; followed with tart, toasty tannins.
Jade Mountain 1999 "Paras Vineyard" Merlot; $50. A fine California bottling from Mount Veeder fruit, this is tightly layered with minerals, earth and dense cassis and blackberry fruit. Intense and compact, so let it breathe at least two hours.
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