Washington’s wine is growing up

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Every appellation has gone through it. The best go through it sooner rather than later and also go through it multiple times revisiting the issue of terroir driven winemaking. Oregon has yet to go through it as they continue to overemphasize terroir driven acid levels in their Pinot Noir. California has watched as the pendulum of overly done Chardonnay has swung towards overly lean stainless steel Chardonnay, and is now starting to settle in the middle with an array of finely honed elegantly balanced white wines.

Washington is just starting the progression away from the overly oaked overly extracted and overly ripe wines that we heard repeatedly were just the result of long warm summer days with little rain, while simultaneously denial that winemaking was extrapolating those characteristics to a fault. No doubt there has always been a small cadre of winemakers that ignored the siren call of more is always better: more oak, more tannin, more extraction and so on.

But for every John Abbott, for every Rich Funk and Rob Newsome, there were three other wineries that believed more was always better. I’m telling you though it is changing, and we saw evidence of how much it is changing just this past week. We couldn’t be more pleased.

No doubt what matters most is finding wines you like, and some of us prefer those big massive interpretations of the growing region, but palates change too. As we grow as wine consumers, our palates detect and appreciate more nuance, subtlety becomes more important and elegance creeps into our wine vocabulary. We will leave the discussion of what comes first, winemaking style or consumer preference for another time, the wine version of the “chicken and the egg” argument.

Spring is the time of year when we see many of our winery friends in town. It increases the number of wines we taste each week a lot, as just this past week we probably visited nearly a hundred wines with winery reps, winemakers, importers and brokers. Two tastings though, both with wineries from Washington that we know well, really stood out.

Chad Johnson and Corey Braunel, co-owners and co-winemakers at Dusted Valley, have been making wine for quite some time in Washington. And they have been making wine well, when we tasted the portfolio from Dusted Valley this week, though, we noticed changes. Big changes, and in our opinion changes for the better. The wines now are smooth, balanced and elegant. The vibrant fruit derived from great vineyards managed by some of the best growers in Washington is really shining through. The terroir remains evident in the wine, but without the unnecessary amplification from using lots of new oak barrels and extended maceration. We learned that in many of their wines, especially their Rhone based wines, nearly half of the oak barrels used for aging are neutral, imparting subtle texture but no oak flavor. We noticed changes too in their Bordeaux based wines. In short, they were all delicious!

Similarly, Hedges Winery (located outside Benton City) has been making well crafted wines for quite some time. When we tasted through the wines this week again, we were pleasantly surprised. Hedges has always had some of the best labeling in the business, but the wines at times we felt were “masked” by some of the winemaking choices. They were well made in every regard, but somehow we felt based on our palate we were not able to taste all they could be. Now all of the great estate grown fruit they are using is being allowed to shine. The wines have a grace about them that we found spectacular and refreshing.

Each of us is different as a wine consumer; if we all enjoyed the same thing in wine we would only need a couple choices in the shop. The most important thing remains finding wines we enjoy, whatever it is we feel is most important. As a wine region like Washington grows up, though, and winemakers shift styles and consumers’ tastes change, we get some welcome diversity in style and flavor as terroir is allowed to speak in its own voice unmasked by winemaking.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or if you have questions on wine, you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com, or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

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George Balling is co-owner (with his wife Mary Lancaster) of the dinner party, a wine and table top décor shop located by Costco in Coeur d’Alene. George worked as a judge in many wine competitions, and his articles are published around the country. You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. Be sure and check out our weekly blog at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com/home/blog-2 You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.

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