‘Wines by northwest’ pour excellence

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

California gets all the attention when it comes to wine produced in the United States. With wineries concentrated mostly in regions such as Napa and Sonoma, the state produces almost 90 percent of  the wine made in the nation.

But turn your western gaze a little more northwesterly. Washington and Oregon have winemaking legacies nearly as long as California’s, and those states’ pinot noir, chardonnay and excellent vintages are pushing them further into the limelight. The states rank as the third and fourth highest-producing states in the nation behind California and New York.

Washington boasts an $8.6 billion wine industry, more than half of which comes from wine tourism. More than 50,000 acres of vineyards (owned and operated by about 800 wineries and 350 ancillary grape growers) produce 12.5 million cases of wine in the state. Production is more or less evenly distributed between red and white varietals.

Oregon lags its northern neighbor but still boast $2.7 billion industry that’s built largely on the reputation of its pinot noir. The state’s 545 wineries produce 72 varieties of grapes, and production numbers continue to increase. 

We reviewed wines from the Pacific Northwest and created a mixed list of favorites grouped by color and varietal.

WHITES

Although not as well-known as some of its counterparts, the pinot gris grape has been producing top quality wines worldwide for generations, largely in cooler climates. Known for a honey-like flavor palate, Pacific Northwest pinot gris also has a spritzy, fruity quality that makes it one of the region’s most successful varietals.

Two wines from Oregon stand out. The Acrobat 2013 Pinot Gris ($12), produced by King Estate, offers a palate of citrus and green apple backed by a youthful effervescence that makes the wine ideal for warm fall days. 

The winery also offers a stronger version under its own brand. King Estate 2012 Domaine Pinot Gris ($25) pours with a bit more authority. A similar fruit-and-acidity approach brightens the palate, which is then treated to essences of pear, citrus and tropical fruit backed by a honeyed apricot nose, giving the wine more character and grace than its lower-priced sibling.

Chenin blanc, which originated from and is still cultivated in France’s Loire Valley, is undergoing a resurgence in popularity. Try wines like Pacific Rim 2013 Chenin Blanc ($11), from Hilary Hahn Vineyards in Washington’s Yakima Valley. The wine’s floral aromas lead to flavors of melon and Key lime while suggesting traces of minerality underneath its refined surface.

Chardonnay looms large in the Pacific Northwest, and the Columbia Winery’s Chardonnay ($11) offers a nicely oaked version of the familiar varietal. A balanced palate blends acidity and a vanilla sweetness from its oak aging that’s augmented by apple, pear and tropical fruit overtones.

Cooler climates also bode well for Riesling production, and the winemakers at North by Northwest find subtle expression in fruit from vineyards on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the Columbia River Valley.

The NxNW 2011 Horse Heaven Hills Riesling ($10) offers a drier expression of the familiar white wine. Golden straw in color, with aromas of peaches, jasmine and even graham cracker, the wine pours with flavors of apricot, mango and citrus, offering a good balance of fruit and acidity, with a lingering, satisfying finish.

The same winery offers a late harvest varietal, the NxNW 2011 Riesling ($15 for 375 ml) that is richer, sweeter and more viscous than its younger sister. With a nose of summer berries and bubblegum, the dessert wine offers essences of mandarin orange, blackberry and sour cherry on the palate. 

REDS

Although technically not a red, the 2013 Acrobat Rosé of Pinot Noir ($16) serves as a fine crossover to heartier wines. Lively acidity balances with bold fruit in this fruit-forward Oregon wine. You’ll find surprising notes of spice, strawberry and even a touch of kiwi on the palate.

We can’t mention Oregon wines without immediately thinking of the state’s rich and vibrant pinot noir profile. The opportunities are almost too many to mention, but here are two worth trying:

The 2012 Iris Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir ($20) pours a deep garnet with aromas of anise, plum, black cherry and a touch of smoke. The cherry and plum appear on the palate of the medium-bodied wine along with dark chocolate baking spices and maybe even a little graham cracker, finishing long and clean.

The 2012 King Estate Signature Pinot Noir ($25) offers dark fruit aromas balanced with earthiness and spice. Those essences carry through to the flavor palate, which offer good balance, mellow acidity and nice complexity.

Pinot noir does not play a role in the 2011 g3 Red Wine ($15) from Goose Ridge Estate in Washington’s Columbia Valley. The red blend, composed of (in descending order) cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, malbec, mourvèdre, petit verdot and cabernet franc grapes, combines elements of red fruit and crisp red apple on the palate. Its oak aging adds notes of vanilla and spice to the wine’s long and supple finish.

Other Columbia Valley reds are gaining attention, including the Columbia Winery Merlot ($12). Blended with small percentages of syrah and cabernet sauvignon, the wine pours a deep red with a distinctly purple edge. The merlot’s rich, almost plush mouthfeel offers highlights of cherry and plum with notes of toasty oak and vanilla from its barrel aging.

But Skyfall Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($13) was one of our most pleasant surprises. Only 5,000 cases were produced, but the resulting vintage has a boysenberry and dark chocolate nose matched to flavors of black cherry, butterscotch and maybe even a hint of crème brûlée. This one is often tough to find, but it’s worth the search.

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