For the holidays: explorers, stars and bargains
The problem with these lists is that most of the wines on them are long gone. I think you'll agree it's far more desirable to be able to go out and buy the wines that are being recommended.
With that in mind, I have waited till the last minute to compile the goodies listed here, trying as best I could to eliminate any wines that are no longer in the marketplace. Having prostrated myself before The Editors, I was granted a few extra weeks, allowing me to taste through a higher percentage of new releases, which flood into the shops each fall.
Even so, some vintages may have changed between the time this is written and the time it appears in print. Do not be dismayed. Although, in general, I prefer the 2001 reds over the 2000 reds here in Washington, and although, when considering white wines, younger is usually better, I wouldn't want a vintage variation to scare you away from trying any of these wines as long as the producer, grape, vineyard, etc. are the same. The producers on this list have track records for excellence; that is a big part of the reason they have made the cut. In other words, these are not fluke successes.
This year, as last, I have put together three cases of wine, each selected for a different reason. Two feature wines exclusively from the Pacific Northwest. We are privileged to live in one of the world's great wine-producing regions, and have access to wines that are virtually unobtainable anywhere else in the world. Many local retailers do a wonderful job of stocking these smaller boutique wines, but if you cannot find them, never hesitate to call the winery directly. It is perfectly legal here in Washington for adults over 21 to order wine from wineries.
First up is my "Northwest Adventurers" case. These 12 wines reflect the astonishing breadth of experimentation taking place in the region. Perhaps some of the grape names will be unfamiliar to you. In a spirit of adventure, I encourage you to travel a bit beyond the basics and into the uncharted pleasures of such grapes as roussanne and dolcetto, semillon and sangiovese. Ask yourself, "What would Lewis and Clark drink? Surely not chardonnay with the elk."
The second case features "Northwest Stars" some of the most excellent wines released in the past year, price no object. Of course, no complete "Best Of" list could be this short, and some great names are missing from this one because they are long since sold out. If you want to collect the very best, you'll need to visit wineries in person, keep a calendar of their wine-release dates, and get on their mailing lists. It's also a good idea to chat up your local wine seller; good customers get first crack at wines in scarce supply.
Finally, for the "Hundred Bucks Deluxe" case I extended the search worldwide, pulling together a dozen great wines for under $100. Today, with a serious glut of grapes, unsold cases stacking up in wineries and warehouses, and a new vintage on the way, it is Par-tay Time for consumers. These wines (and many more like them) offer plenty of flavor, style and even (gasp!) terroir; far more than most of the $15-to-$20 corporate wines that flood the marketplace.
But again, you have to be adventurous. If you want Napa cabernet and only Napa cabernet, it's going to cost you more than $8 to find a really good one. So look elsewhere, using this list as a starting point. When you do your own treasure hunting, watch for wines that are being closed out (or "posted off") by the winery or wholesaler; these can be spectacular buys. And remember that most places will give you a case discount of 10 to 20 percent, so don't ever walk away with just 10 or 11 bottles. The 12th (and sometimes the 11th) will be free.
With the holidays approaching, bargains abound. I hope you will try some of these wines, and tell me which ones you particularly enjoy, or share some discoveries of your own. Happy Holidays.
L'Ecole No. 41 2002 Barrel Fermented Semillon; Wash., $15. L'Ecole makes three different dry semillons, but the barrel-fermented bottling gives the most flavor bang for your buck. With 12 percent sauvignon blanc blended in, the crisp semillon fruit is enhanced with grassy herbs and toasty, roasted cereal flavors.
WillaKenzie Estate 2002 Pinot Blanc; Ore.; $18. I go back and forth trying to decide whether I prefer this winery's pinot gris or pinot blanc. This is an amazingly ripe, plump and polished wine, with lush tropical flavors of papaya, honeydew and pineapple.
Rex Hill 2002 "Carabella Vineyard" Pinot Gris; Ore.; $28. Rex Hill is making four or five different pinot gris, but this is the best. Perfectly ripened and balanced, it gracefully mixes flavors of tart fruit, mineral and spice.
Rulo 2002 Viognier; Wash.; $18. For the second straight vintage, Rulo scores with this difficult grape. Their version is fresh and clean, with scents of lemon rind and orange blossom, and flavors of crisp citrus. Neither too tart and green nor too ripe, it's an elegant, textured, lively white wine.
Syncline 2002 "Alder Ridge Vineyard" Roussanne; Wash.; $19. Syncline is making wonderful wines in the Columbia Gorge. This ripe, full-bodied roussanne is bursting with flavors of tropical fruits and white peaches.
Brooks 2002 Amycas White; Ore.; $12. This unusual blend of riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer is a one-bottle "best of Oregon," where all three grapes excel. Citrus, ripe pears and rose petals mingle, linger and refresh the palate.
Hogue 2001 "Terroir" Lemberger; Wash.; $20. Hogue takes this oddball grape, once called Washington's zinfandel (before there was any Washington zinfandel), and ramps it up a flavor notch, blending it with syrah. Spicy and loaded with black-cherry fruit, it creates the most polished lem I've yet tasted.
Walla Walla Vintners 2001 Sangiovese; Wash.; $20. Sangiovese is not widely planted in Washington, but winemakers here are having fun with it, and getting some of the chianti character one hopes for. Here, the fruit tastes of dried cherry, with notes of tobacco and leather; the finish is all smooth, chocolatey oak.
Cascade Cliffs 2002 Barbera; Wash.; $18. Cascade Cliffs is one of a handful of Washington wineries trying out this northern Italian grape, and they really nailed it in 2002. Big and juicy, it's packed with ripe, spicy, delicious fruit, and plenty of tart, food-ready acids.
Woodward Canyon 2002 Dolcetto; Wash.; $19. From the estate vineyard, winemaker Rick Small has begun harvesting young grapes and making this fruity dolcetto. Juicy, purple and grapey, as dolcetto should be, it's a perfect turkey wine.
Forgeron Cellars 2001 Zinfandel; Wash.; $25. All of a sudden, everyone seems to be making zin in Washington. Forgeron's hearty wine shows off plummy fruit, tart cherries and a sweet, caramelized finish, with just a kiss of bourbon flavor from the oak barrels.
Colvin 2001 Cabernet Franc; Wash.; $24. Cabernet franc is usually found in Bordeaux-style blends. Here it is the star of its own show, full of muscular and dark fruit, with a hint of barnyard flavor. The big finish tastes of roasted coffee beans and smoke.
Amity 2001 Dry Riesling; Ore.; $12. Amity calls this dry, but it retains some pleasing fruity sweetness, along with plenty of crisp acid. Spicy and textured, it wraps the taste buds in citrus zest, stone and hints of lemon candy.
Sineann 2002 Gewürztraminer; $18. The winery makes a pair of vineyard-designated gewürztraminers, one from Reed & Reynolds of Oregon, the other from Celilo of Washington. Both limited, both superb. Lime, grapefruit rind and stone mingle seamlessly. Flat-out brilliant winemaking.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2001 "Cold Creek" Chardonnay; Wash.; $26. Chateau Ste. Michelle's top single-vineyard wines can compete comfortably with the best of the boutiques. Cold Creek is their best vineyard; here it shows off ripe, tropical chardonnay fruit wrapped in creamy, toasty, caramel-flavored oak.
Elk Cove 2002 Pinot Gris; Ore.; $15. This is my favorite pinot gris from a bumper 2002 crop. It's a balanced, complex wine, layered with luscious, crisp green and stone fruits. Just the right mix of acid, tannin and sleek, racy texture.
Bookwalter 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon; Wash.; $28. Bookwalter has made its best cabernet to date. It's dense, dark and packed with powerful fruit, muscled around carefully balanced oak, and buttressed with spicy acid.
Waterbrook 2000 "Ciel du Cheval" Cabernet Sauvignon; Wash.; $28. From a great Red Mountain vineyard comes a glorious wine, perfectly ripe, supple and complex. Layer upon layer of earth, mineral, mushroom, leather and dried fruits seem to expand forever in the mouth.
Wineglass Cellars 2000 "Elerding Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon; Wash.; $45. The best cabernet comes from the best vineyards, as this elegant, textured, subtle wine demonstrates. Smoky, dusty black cherry and plum scents lead into ripe cassis fruit, with hints of earth and mineral filling in the finish.
Spring Valley Vineyard 2001 "Frederick" Red Table Wine; Wash.; $35. Spring Valley owns unique property in the rolling wheat country north of Walla Walla, and its wine sells out very quickly. This cab-dominated Bordeaux blend is tannic and tight, with blueberry fruit and dark, roasted barrel flavors. Think Uriah on steroids.
Northstar 2000 Columbia Valley Merlot; Wash.; $52. Northstar now makes two different merlots; the Columbia Valley is tighter and more alcoholic than the excellent Walla Walla bottling. Silky and supple, this one is packed with plum and currant flavors, riding a sea of smooth tannins.
McCrea Cellars 2001 "Ciel du Cheval" Syrah; Wash.; $45. McCrea makes five different syrahs, but if I had to choose one, this would be it. Layered with blue and black fruits, it also delivers hints of iron ore, cassis and violets. Perhaps the most textural, complex syrah in the state.
Three Rivers 2001 "Boushey Vineyard" Syrah; Wash.; $40. Another great vineyard stands behind this weighty, intense, immensely concentrated wine. Huge, almost port-like, yet still smooth and packed with rich flavor.
Benton-Lane 1999 "Sunnymount Cuvée" Pinot Noir; Ore.; $65. Oregon vintners make dozens of powerful, pricey, single-vineyard pinots. They are expensive and often hard to get. But this one is not just ripe and powerful; it's truly Burgundian in style. Flavors of beet root, herb, leaf, cherry and spicy oak are beautifully integrated in a wine made for the long haul.
The Total Case Cost: $92. With state sales tax, we are right around $100. But with your 10 percent case discount, there's money left over for a couple of full-meal deals.
Cline 2001 Oakley Vin Blanc; Calif.; $6.50. Cline's Oakley Rouge and Oakley Blanc are both sensational. The white wine is an improbably delicious mix of 10 different white grapes. Rhone flavors dominate plump roussanne, floral viognier but the complexity of this crayon-box of flavors is astonishing.
Oisley-Thésée 2002 Touraine Sauvignon "Les Gourmets"; France; $6.50. Touraine is a broad appellation in the heart of the Loire Valley; 2002 was a spectacular vintage for the region's sauvignon blancs. This wine is packed with bright, tangy, grassy/herbal flavors, whiffs of flower and even a hint of honey.
Avery Lane 2002 Johannisberg Riesling; Wash.; $7. It's tough to pick just one when this state is a-Wash in great riesling. This is very pretty, with ripe, succulent green-apple flavors mingled with sweet honeysuckle notes.
Columbia 2001 Semillon; Wash.; $8. Unblended, 100 percent semillon is not often seen. Here we taste the woolly, woody side of the grape, bone dry and enhanced with creamy hints of bean and vanilla.
Torre di Luna 2001 Pinot Grigio; Italy; $8. This wine hits all the right notes for me, delivering creamy, rich pear and crisp, citrus-fruit flavors. Pinot grigio is incredibly popular, and rightly so, but you rarely find it this good at this price.
Rocca delle Macie 2001 Orvieto Classico; Italy; $9. If you love pinot grigio, it's time to explore some less-known Italian white-wine treasures. This light but persistently flavorful wine, from a hilltop town north of Rome, is infused with delicate, penetrating almond flavors.
A-Mano 2001 Primitivo; Italy; $7. This primitivo, from the southern region of Puglia, is a close relative of California zinfandel, but its flavors are a bit more round and luscious, with sweet cherry and berry fruit, and a soft, extended finish.
Francis Coppola 2001 Rosso; Calif.; $8. The famous film director goes back to his roots with this blend of zin, syrah, cabernet, petite sirah and sangiovese. It's a hearty, happy, fruit-drenched pizza wine, with big flavors, moderate (13.5 percent) alcohol and soft tannins.
Castle Rock 2002 Pinot Noir; Calif.; $9. Castle Rock is making some very flavorful, sweet and fruity wines, and this pinot may be its best. Juicy cherry and blackberry flavors, backed by earthy, slightly mushroomy Russian River Valley terroir.
2 Brothers 2002 Big Tattoo Red; Chile; $8. This blended red is packed with flavor, dark and tannic. Dense cassis, cocoa and blackberries anchor it, with some herbal accents bringing up the rear. The perfect match for grilled red meat.
Ca' del Solo 2002 Big House Red; Calif.; $9. From the folks at Bonny Doon comes this irrepressible, screwcapped red blend of syrah, petite sirah, carignan, barbera, zin, malbec and mourvèdre something to please every palate. Big, brassy, assertive and a bit raw, it packs a lot of flavor for the price.
Yellow Tail 2002 Shiraz; Australia; $6. This enormously popular brand makes as good a $6 shiraz as you will find. Dark and almost jammy, it shows clean, varietal flavors with surprising weight and polish.
Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.
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