Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Oddities & Curiosities: Unique Northwest Wines

Over the years we have come to identify particular wine varieties not just with regions but with wine itself. You know, wine, like Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. That's wine. Oh sure, there are outliers or wine varietals some would even call boundary pushing, like Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, etc. But for many wine drinkers, we play it safe and keep it simple. There are, according to some estimates, as many as 1,300 varieties of wine grape used for commercial winemaking. So why the narrow focus? My theory is that our wine based tunnel vision is really a product of three things, the practical, the traditional and the comfortable.

As a young wine region America has looked to emulate the success of Europe's most renowned wine regions. Those regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy have been the benchmark and so it should be no surprise that American wines have been largely comprised of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc of Bordeaux fame, along with the Burgundian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Naturally these are the wines that many people become most comfortable with, its what they're familiar with, it's what they see most often and get used to. There's nothing wrong with being comfortable. However, wine offers such an abundance of opportunity to try different things, 1,300 of them remember. So what I'm encouraging you to do is, don't be so mainstream. Maybe be a little bit deviant.

There is plenty of opportunity for deviance here in the Northwest, I'm talking about wine now, so take your mind out of the gutter. I mean like deviate from the norm. Merlot, sure we've got that, Pinot too. We've also got Rousanne, Gamay Noir, Grenache Blanc and Tempranillo, or these two wines, a Graciano from Washington state and a Tannat from Southern Oregon.

The Tannat being made by Troon Vineyard is very much about getting away from a bit of the mainstream and "to look for inspiration in regions that might be similar to our own" says winemaker Herb Quady. "We knew that Malbec was successful locally, and that Tannat was grown and blended with Malbec in Cahors." Traditionally Tannat has been most identified with the French growing region Madiran and it has become very popular in Uruguay. The folks at Troon though figured that if the Malbec was being grown in Southern Oregon was doing well, perhaps taking a look at other wines that did well in areas where Malbec was successful was the way to go. This led them to make that connection to Cahors and give Tannat a go beginning by grafting some over in 2006. Given the reception and how well the wine has turned out, you can look for it to become a central part of the wines Troon is making moving forward.
Is it challenging to be one of the only people making a certain wine in any given region?  For Herb "the challenge, it seems, is that Tannat sets a large crop and ripens late.  We often drop half the crop and almost always pick it last.  We haven't seen the seriously tannic profile on Tannat." Herb takes more or less the approach he takes with Cabernet Sauvignon, fermenting the wine in oak as well as the use of new French barrels for aging. He was also able to gain a bit of experience with the wine when he worked with Randall Graham at Bonny Doon, so not being a total stranger helped.

Javier Alfonso is probably most known for his label Pomum Cellars but his side project Idilico is rapidly becoming very popular with a focus on his native Spanish varieties at the under $20 price-point.  Graciano is almost exclusively used to be blended with Tempranillo to make the signature wines of Spain's Rioja region. Graciano adds both color and acidity. Javier started corresponding with one Spanish producer who was bottling varietal Graciano. "In our correspondence we realized that heat units in Rioja and in most vintages, fall too short to properly ripen it. However the deficit is marginal and perhaps a place that could provide that little extra heat would make Graciano express its full potential." 

Javier worked with the Newhouse family of Upland Vineyards one of Washington's most revered grape growers and they agreed to plant two acres of this obscure Spanish wine. Reception has been incredible for the 2010 bottling. It was named one of the best new wines by Seattle Met Magazine and it's on the glass pour list at Canlis and the Herb Farm. The small and only planting means it will probably be some time before Javier can up the production from the tiny 170 cases. Javier thinks Graciano will be a wine that Washington may come to embrace.

2011 Troon Vineyard Estate Tannat Applegate Valley is pretty revealing. If I'm being honest, it turned my Tannat expectations on their head. Rather than face-sucking tannin or nearly zero aromatics this is a ripe, ready, almost voluptuous wine. I had to check again on that 13% alcohol marked on the label. This is a nicely balanced, well made wine. There is tannin, don't get me wrong, but the wine is totally approachable. The structure is definitive, the palate is grippy and loaded up with chewy black fruit. There are aromatics of sage, mocha and iron which are still a tad on the shy side. Despite it's readiness it should be really something in a couple of years. Right now the production is tiny at 48 cases but Troon plans to grow and produce more Tannat in the future $28

2010 Idilico Graciano I totally love this wine, let me rephrase that, and excuse the language, I would drink the shit out of this wine. First off, it's priced at around $18-20. It drinks like something from the wild and unruly Roussillon region of France and frankly it only improves over the course of the evening. Dark and inky purple with wild herbal aromatics, it's got a bit of everything. The wine is strikingly balanced, juicy dark fruits, garrigue and a little zip at the end. Let's be honest you wanna try this wine because it's cool as hell. It's called Graciano, it rhymes with Rocky Marciano and it's a wine that  none of your friends has likely ever had before. Shock them. Not only is it obscure, it's really, really, really good. $20


Great post Clive. Thanks for including our Graciano (also rhymes with Bizarro Graciano). Also great timing as we are releasing our 2011 this weekend. If you are in the Seattle area come by.
Javier Alfonso

As good as Javier's Pomum collection is (and they are really good), his Idilico wines seem to have something more. They have become favorites. We go out of our way to snatch them up whenever we see them. He makes several varietals and they are all special.

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