February 2016 Wine & Cheese Club: Columbia Valley

February 2016 Wine & Cheese Club:  Washington’s Columbia Valley

We’ll admit it- our shelves should have more wines from Columbia Valley, so this month’s club was a good excuse to drink a lot of Washington wine! What you have here are our top choices that fit the wine club budget. You’ll be seeing much more from Columbia Valley on our shelves in the coming months!

The quick facts on Washington State wines:

  • Almost all wines of note (including our selections this month) come from Columbia Valley.
  • Columbia Valley is BIG: at 11 million acres, it comprises a third of the state’s landmass. Napa, for comparison, is only 43,000 acres.
  • Within the Columbia Valley AVA are many smaller AVAs. However, most wine sold outside the state simply state “Columbia Valley” on the label, even if they come from a more specific site.
  • The Columbia Valley is at roughly the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy, and 800 miles North of Napa. During the growing season, it gets two more hours of sunlight than Napa, but at higher elevation and cooler temperatures. This contributes to a more even ripening process and typically more elegant, softer wines.
  • Most of us picture Washington as lush coastal wonderland, but the Columbia Valley is on the Western side of the state, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range. This contributes to the near desert-like conditions and wide temperature swings ideal for growing wine grapes.

Everybody: North by Northwest Red Blend 2013
42% Syrah, 24% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec

Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet…this blend has all of Columbia Valley’s hits in one bottle. The Syrah definitely comes through- you’ll detect its herbal, somewhat savory fruit. It’s dark and rich, but not exceedingly heavy or high in alcohol- much of what we like about the Northern Rhône Syrah that inspires growers in this region.  The most striking feature about this wine is its softness- as if it kind of floats above your tongue, a liquid lighter than water.

Cheese Pairing: Hacienda Zorita Syrah-cured Goat Cheese
This organic cheese is made from raw sheep’s milk and aged 6 months in Syrah, and produced according to the principles of Slow Food. We recommend letting this cheese come to room temperature to fully appreciate its depth of flavor- something we always suggest, but a particularly good recommendation in this case. While not especially Syrah in flavor, curing the cheese this way serves as an excellent bridge in this pairing.

White: Gravel Bar Chardonnay 2013
100% Chardonnay. (94% from Wahluke Slope AVA, 100% Columbia Valley AVA)

This is easily the best value* for a Chardonnay we’ve tasted in quite some time. We like to play “guess the price” when we taste, and we all guessed $25+ for this one. Incredibly, it’s actually (SPOILER ALERT) $15. A true testament to the great values to be found from the Columbia Valley!

Gravel Bar is a reference to the Ice Age influence on this land. As the massive glaciers receded and melted, they sometimes formed vast lakes inside the glaciers, dammed in by still-frozen ice. Then suddenly, a wall of ice would collapse releasing a giant lake of water all at once, spilling out into the valley and pushing massive amounts of sand and rock into the valley. Where this sand and rock landed is now, in part, the site of this vineyard.

In California, for example, most winemakers readily tout as specific of an AVA as possible- or even the exact vineyard the grapes are from, if possible. Columbia Valley, on the other hand, displays the AVA (American Viticulture Area) of Columbia Valley but does not often tout the smaller, more specific AVAs even when they could.  The reason for this isn’t completely clear, but there are probably two contributing factors. First, “Columbia Valley” is easily recognizable to consumers, but the smaller AVAs are not.  The other reason is that it seems that the business model is just different here, and there is simply less estate bottling of wine. There are many growers, and many winemakers, but they aren’t one and the same as often as in California.

This wine is a good example of this practice: The label simply claims Columbia Valley, but 94% comes from the Wahluke Slope AVA- enough to legally label it “Wahluke Slope”, a more specific AVA within Columbia Valley.

Bob Stashak might be the first winemaker to write a description of his/her wine that we completely agree with: “Rich and full-bodied with flavors of crisp apple and sun-ripened pear and finishing with creamy, spice overtones.” Although aged in American oak, it doesn’t assert as much oaky personality as usual. It’s there, but it doesn’t dominate in that way that turned so many of us off to Chardonnay in the past.

Red Club only: Chateau Smith Cabernet, Washington State 2013
90% Cabernet, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot, 1% Malbec

Charles Smith is somewhat of a newcomer to the scene (2001 was his first release, and Chateau Smith began in 2006), but he has gained wide recognition for great wines at great prices. His outsized personality quirks and hair also help the buzz. Notably superstitious, one anecdote is that he refused to fly home from an event in North Carolina because he lost his lucky hat- he rented a car and drove back instead!

Chateau Smith is a step up from his more everyday wines, and this is a classic example of Washington State Cabernet- elegant, easy, silky. Mostly sourced from vineyards around 1300 feet in elevation, they come from some of the most moderate temperatures in the state. Neutral, sandy soils let the flavor of the fruit shine. It is educational to compare these conditions to the lime and clay soils of last month’s Barbera d’Asti, in which the soil was very much a component of the flavor. Compared to a classic Napa Cabernet, those from Napa tend to be a bit fuller bodied than those from Washington, with more black than red fruit.

Technical note: The label on the wine shipment we received is identical to the wine featured on Charles Smith website, except ours omits “Columbia Valley.” We’ve done a bit of digging, going so far as to contact the winery. As best anyone can tell (we’re all stumped), the only Cabernet made by Chateau Smith is from Columbia Valley, and we’re not sure why Columbia Valley is omitted from the label.

Chardonnay and Cabernet Cheese Pairing: 6-year aged Widmere Cheddar, Wisconsin
Two wines, paired with the same cheese, show how varied pairing strategies can be. In the Chardonnay, which has a crisp apple component, we mimic the classic flavor pairing of apple and cheddar. In the Cabernet, we go with a “like with like” pairing, in that they are both robust and rich and can stand up to one another. There’s no one perfect pairing- pairings are a way of appreciating each food in a new light.

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