A recent holiday to Seattle to visit a good friend of mine turned into something of a wine trip, culminating in a masterclass at hangingditch on my return, where we featured the wines of Eyrie Vineyards and Domaine Drouhin (Oregon) and Andrew Will Winery (Washington).
The histories of Oregon and Washington wine regions are relatively young, beginning in the 1960s and 70s. Oregon is famous for its Pinot Noir, but offers great value Pinot Gris too and produces subtly oaked Chardonnay. Washington produces wine from almost every grape imaginable, but it’s Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that result in Washington’s best wines, especially when blended together Bordeaux style.
Oregon: Domaine Drouhin and Eyrie Vineyards
The story of Pinot Noir in Oregon begins with David Lett. Until his death in 2008, he was the founder and winemaker at Eyrie, which is still one of the top wineries in the state. He was one of the first winemakers to plant vines in Oregon, including Pinot Noir, in the 1960s and it was his 1975 vintage which attracted attention to Oregon’s Pinots. In 1979, he entered his 1975 Pinot Noir in an informal tasting, where it finished in the top ten. Intrigued, Burgundy winemaker Robert Drouhin invited Lett to enter the wine in a more formal tasting the following year. This time the wine came second, behind Drouhin’s own wine.
Drouhin continued to keep in touch with Oregon winemakers and ultimately decided to establish a winery there, where his daughter Véronique, recently graduated from the University of Dijon, became the winemaker. Vines were planted in 1987, the first vintage was 1988, and twenty-five years later it is one of the state’s leading wineries. Their Pinots are quite Burgundian in style but retain the natural fruity character typical of Oregon (Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2011 £30). The Chardonnays have a racy acidity balanced with creaminess from the small amount of time spent in new oak – described to me as a cross between Chablis and Meursault. The winery, built into the hillside in 1989, is beautifully located overlooking their vines – a perfect place to indulge in a glass of Pinot Noir.
Eyrie Vineyards are located in the rather drab town of McMinniville, but their wines come from four vineyards located all round Willamette Valley. Although their Pinots are superb – floral, fruity, and spicy (Pinot Noir 2009 £35) – it was their whites I was really drawn to. David Lett planted the first Pinot Gris in the United States, and it’s a wonderful, immediate, and affordable wine that still has the potential for ageing (Pinot Gris 2007 £20). Unlike other pioneer winemakers, Lett did not plant unsuitable Chardonnay clones from the University of California at Davis, but “Draper clones” that had come from Europe in the 1930s. This makes Eyrie Chardonnay unique in Oregon – rather than the Dijon clones planted in the early 1990s that now account for the best Chardonnay in Oregon, the wine is from vines nearly fifty years old. The 2010 Reserve Chardonnay (£45) has a wonderful danky aroma, full of the farmyard, but finishes on the palate with a rich, deep, long weight to it. None of Eyrie’s wines is aged in new oak, but the Chardonnay still has a round creaminess to it. I also got to taste a Melon de Bourgogne from 2009. This came from vines mistakenly planted in 1965; the 2009 was the first ever commercial release, made by Lett’s son Jason in tribute to his father’s vision. Unavailable outside the winery, I bought a bottle to bring back to the tasting at hangingditch – where this rich, spicy, distinctive wine was enthusiastically received.
Washington – Andrew Will Winery
Visiting the Andrew Will Winery and meeting the winemaker Chris Camarda (the name of the winery comes from the names of his nephew and son) was a unique and unforgettable experience. The winery is located on Vashon Island, a sleepy retreat a twenty-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Chris’s house is a stylishly converted farmhouse in the middle of a forest, with just his three dogs to disturb the tranquillity. In Paul Gregutt’s essential companion to Washington wine, Washington Wines & Wineries, Chris is described as “gruff and grizzled…a fascinating combination of shy and cynical…sharp, pointed, opinionated,” and it’s an accurate description. One moment he’d be raging against the wine industry, the next enthusiastically quoting from wine textbooks.
Much of the wine Chris produces is from Bordeaux grapes. He started off concentrating on single-varietal wines, making his name from his series of Merlots in the early 1990s when national attention was newly focused on Washington because of that grape. Over time, however, he has shifted his focus to single-vineyard blends. His Two Blondes wine comes from the Two Blondes vineyard which he bought and planted in 2000; the first vintage was 2003 and it’s now his most popular wine, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Sorella, his signature wine, comes from the Champoux vineyard, renowned as the best vineyard in Washington for Cabernet Sauvignon, which always makes up the bulk of Sorella. (Two Blondes 2009 £50; Sorella 2008 £55)
Without wishing to boast, I was fortunate enough to taste all of his 2012 vintages straight from their oak barrels (they already taste fantastic, particularly the Sorella); we ran through the recent vintages of Two Blondes and Sorella; all accompanied by cheese, bread, peaches and apples fresh from Walla Walla, and Merlot grapes picked in the vineyard the previous day just before they were fully ripened for harvest. I also had the chance to taste the 2008 Sorella in two different bottles – one stopped with a cork (as all commercial sales are) and the other with a screwcap. It was fascinating to taste the two side by side – under screwcap it did seem fruitier, and under cork oakier.
After working in the restaurant business, Chris started making wine in a factory space in Seattle in the late 1980s. I casually asked him what his wines were like when he started out, to which he casually replied, “Pretty good,” before getting out his Cabernet Sauvignon from 1995 – his favourite vintage of the decade – to prove his point. He was right – complex with wonderful maturity but still fruity and vibrant. It made clear just how long his wines can age.
Believe it or not, I had time to do some extensive beer tasting while I was there too, but that’s for another blog maybe…