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Young vines, intense wines

Washington state is making a name for itself with carefully crafted wines

by Felicity Hughes

Last month saw the Washington Wine Commission host the Taste Washington event, which showcased wines from 45 wineries in the region. For the event in Ebisu at the Westin Hotel’s Galaxy Ballroom on Jan. 29, wine enthusiasts gathered from all over Tokyo eager to sample wines from a location that, while relatively new to the fine-wine market, is already creating a significant buzz.

Though the flat planes of Washington’s wine country have none of the romance of the rolling terrain native to neighboring Oregon, the region’s hot summers are ideal for nurturing blockbusting grape varieties such as syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Low-cost farmland was the catalyst for the huge expansion of the wine industry, with its rapid rate of growth spiking astonishingly during 1999, when a new winery was trademarked every 13 days on average.

Because the growth of the region occurred so recently, vine stocks are relatively young and many vineyards buy their fruit from other Washington grape farmers rather than tend their own fields. Typically the intense fruit flavors of Washington wines will last around eight years, and bottles ought to be drunk no later than this date. Though the land has the potential to produce more sophisticated wine that can mellow pleasantly with age, it has been difficult for winemakers to unlock the soil’s hidden possibilities given the youth of the vine stock.

Experience is key to unlocking the potential of this young region, which is why Sean Boyd of Woodinville Wine Cellars is so well placed to make a strikingly good wine. The son of a wine critic, Boyd certainly knows his wine lore. Each step of the winemaking process is carefully thought out — an approach Boyd calls “artisan” — with particular attention to using oak in a subtle manner that does not mask the natural attributes of the wine itself. I particularly liked his Woodinville Wine Cellars 2005 Syrah Columbia Valley, (¥9,345 from www.thefoz.jp ). While some syrahs I tasted suffered from rather too much spice, this was the most balanced of the bunch. Oak flavors softened the pepper in this red to make it a powerful but gentle giant.

Another charming syrah on show was Abeja 2006 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley (¥9,188 from www.thefoz.jp ). This Noel Coward of a wine combined a smooth, silky charm with a devilishly sharp tongue.

These weren’t the only refined reds on offer. Chateau Ste. Michelle 2004 Merlot Columbia Valley (available to order from Wine Market Party in Ebisu, Tokyo for ¥2,800) is a highly sophisticated duchess of a wine, the oak lending an elegance that was lacking in many of the high-end Washington wines.

Coeur d’Alene Cellars 2005 Opulence, Horse Heaven Hills (¥5,833 from www.w-t-i.net ), also scored high on both taste and value. The pedigree this wine’s French name hints at is no mere pretension: Like walking into the hall of a stately home, impressive whiffs of luxurious petals and deep oak gave a round, sonorous first impression.

It was a Viognier that busted through the competition to make my pick of the evening’s wines. Charles Smith Wines’ proprietor and winemaker was once a manager for various rock bands in Europe, and has now managed to wield his anarchic magic in the world of winemaking. His exclusive K Vintners label 2007 Viognier, Columbia Valley (available for ¥3,444 online from Orca) is utterly scrumptious, capturing an intriguing “Alice in Wonderland” flavor that was hard to pinpoint but finally resolved itself in my consciousness as a blackberry Pop Tart minus the unpleasant flavors of food additives.

When it comes to white varieties, Rieslings and Gewurztraminers thrive particularly well in Washington’s balmy climate. I recommend Long Shadows Vintners 2007 Poet’s Leap Riesling Columbia Valley (¥3,271 from Orca). Its floral bouquet has a whiff of cotton candy that sets your mouth watering. A tiny sip allows these pleasant aromas to blossom out in the mouth, bringing with them the warm and sweet languor of summer.

The chardonnays of Washington have been criticized for being rather lightweight and anemic, packing none of the usual melon punch, but this weakness, in skillful hands, can be converted to a strength. A couple of the chardonnays I sampled carried a delicate litchi scent that was surprisingly beguiling. Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley (available from Wine Market Party at ¥2,217) contained the pleasant refined scent of the Asian fruit and fizzed with hints of sherbet on the tongue. Duckpond Cellars 2006 Chardonnay Wahluke Slope was an offbeat number, with a floral scent that sent a summer light spinning through the brain, while lemony flavors grounded the wine in the palate. In no way acidic, these were extremely subtle, and the wine’s price of ¥1,500 (from www.filcon.co.jp ) doesn’t hold a sting either.

The last wine worth mentioning was McCrea Cellars 2006 Mourvedre, Ciel du Cheval Red Mountain, a weird and wonderful beverage (¥4,218 from Orca). If you are looking for a strong spicy wine to couple with steak, then this one is for you. The spice is tempered with a deep black vein of licorice.

From the evidence of the evening, Washington is beginning to really come into its own as a quality winemaking region. While some wines were still a little rough and ready, this was reflected in their prices (in general, if you are seeking a bargain, look out for low-priced syrahs that will deliver a hit of strong spiciness in their early years). There were more than enough well turned-out, elegant numbers to leave us hopeful that the wines of the region will only continue to mature as the burgeoning wine industry quite literally puts down its roots further into the rich soils.