The last day of a really interesting trip. The subtle temptation when you are touring wine country is to be nice and like every wine you taste. People love praise, and dishing it out makes you feel good. Besides, even the people who make spoofy wines are often nice humans. But if praise is dished out indiscriminately, then you are a lousy wine writer. Producers might love you, but readers will soon tire of your cheap affirmation of the good and bad alike.
I have tasted some great wines on this trip, but also some fairly lousy ones. If you want to be bad, the climate in Washington State can facilitate your evil winemaking (as can the law that allows you to water back must to 22 Brix: so if your customers have a predilection for sweet fruit, you can pick late – at dead fruit stage – and then correct cheaply in the winery. This sort of manipulation isn’t evil of itself, but it can be abused.)
Anyway, back to the last day. From Walla Walla we drove along the Columbia River, past the famous Wallula gap, and on to the Horse Heaven Hills wine region, where we visited Columbia Crest, an enormous winemaking facility that’s part of the Chateau Ste Michelle group. They have 100 000 barrels here: this should give you some idea of the scale of the operation. It’s not only the Columbia Crest wines that are made here, but also some of the other related brands.
Columbia Crest make lots of perfectly good, simple, inexpensive wines, but there’s not much to be said about these bottles. Moving up slightly in price, for $12, I quite liked the H3 Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay and Cabernet, which were decent wines. At the more expensive end ($35) they make a good Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot-based Walter Clore Private Reserve. They are good, but have quite a bit of winemaking to them.
Then we headed further along the river to the Columbia Gorge AVA. Suddenly, we’re out of the very dry, almost desert-like scenery of most of the Columbia Valley, and we’re dealing with some greenness; some trees. There’s rainfall here, and it’s possible to dry-grow vines in certain spots.
We met with four different producers who are based in this AVA at the Maryhill tasting room, which has some lovely views.
First of all, Maryhill. It’s an interesting 75 000 case winery making 57 different wines from 33 different varieties, which might be something of a record. My favourite was the Sugarloaf Vineyard Carmenere, with its supple, elegant, rounded blackberry and raspberry fruit.
Then Idiot’s Grace/Memaloose, who farm vineyards on both the Oregon and Washington State sides of the border. Brian McCormick makes really elegant, fresh wines here, and I particularly liked his Dolcetto and Cabernet Franc, which are beautifully focused and pure. Viticulture is organic. One to watch, for sure.
COR cellars is interesting. They have a focus on Bordeaux varieties, but also play with some other things. Cor is Latin for heart, but it was also a term that we used as kids as a generally enthusiastic and sometimes crude term of positive affirmation. Winemaker Luke Bradford wasn’t around, but we were ably hosted by assistant winemaker Dan Greer. The Alba Cor, a textured blend of Gewurztrminer and Pinot Gris from the Celilo Vineyard, is stylish and elegant. I also liked the Hogsback Ridge Vineyard Malbec, which comes from a cool site and has really pretty black cherry and raspberry fruit. I’ve had a few interesting Washington State Malbecs this trip.
The final producer of the trip: Syncline, with owner James Mantone. Pronounced ‘Sin-Clin’, the wines are a product of the place, where the wetter western Columbia Gorge meets the drier, eastern side. James says that he has ‘a crazy love affair with Champagne,’ and has worked with JL Denois. His Scintillation Brut Rosé, pale in colour, is quite special. I loved his Gruner Veltliner and his Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir (delicate, elegant), and I was also a fan of his Grenache/Carignan Blend from the Horse Heaven Hills. This was officially the last wine of the trip, and it was lovely.