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Focus on the Pacific Northwest:
the wines of Oregon and Washington State
The US wine scene is so dominated by California that it's easy to forget that other US states also produce some world-class wines. And now is certainly a good time to venture out of California, because the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington really are on a bit of a roll. Take Washington State, the second largest wine producer in the USA, with some 48 000 acres in vine and 125 wineries in 1999 (a figure that is still increasing by some 20 a year). Back in 1970 there were just two wineries here, and even as recently as 1980 this figure was just 22. Neighbouring state Oregon isn't as big a player as Washington, with only 9000 acres or so of vineyard, but it does boast around 120 wineries. That's no small feat for an industry that didn't really exist before the 1960s. Indeed, this is the most most exciting feature of the wine scene in these states: it has come a long way in a relatively short time, and there is undoubtedly plenty of room for it to develop further as the quality-minded producers work out what grows best where and experiment further, and as their ranks are swelled by well-funded newcomers.

The tasting notes here are from the Pacific Northwest Wine Coalition annual tasting, held at the Conran Hotel in Chelsea Harbour, London, February 13th 2001.

Washington State
Washington State's production may be dwarfed by that of California, but it's still substantial -- and growing by some 5000 acres of vineyard each year. And almost all of this growth has taken place in the last 30 years (in 1970 there were just two wineries in the entire state). The most northerly state on the west coast of the USA, you'd expect it to be a challenging place to ripen grapes (the latitude of the vineyards is 46-48 N). The state is divided roughly down the middle by the Cascade mountains: the western part nearest the coast, where most of the population lives, is damp and foggy; in contrast, the eastern part of the state, on the other side of the mountain range, is dry and barren -- it is only irrigation that makes growing wine grapes possible here. These two parts of the state offer very different grape growing conditions. Cool, damp western Washington State produces very light wines that only really succeed in good vintages; there are relatively few vineyards here. The eastern part of the state, where most of the vineyards are found, has a continental climate: in winter, the extremely low temperatures are cold enough to kill vines one year in six, and in summer the temperatues often soar above 100 F. The three main AVAs are the Columbia, Yakima and Walla Walla valleys, with the former being by far the largest. Of the wines on show here, the standout producer was Andrew Will, with Ecole No 41 coming in second, some distance behind. Washington State produces a full range of wine styles, from mass production commodity wines, to solid commercial efforts, right up to super-premium low production stuff. Merlot, the state's most planted variety, seems to do particularly well here, and Cabernet Sauvignon is also successful. Of whites, Semillon shows some promise; otherwise, I was generally unimpressed by most white wines I tasted. They seem to frequently display a technological 'boiled sweets' character (I believe that Americans call this 'hard candy'); whether this is from the grapes or the winemaking techniques, I can't be sure. Finally, a word about pricing. These wines are generally not cheap when compared with wines of similar quality from European countries, but they weren't as ludicrously expensive as some Californian wines have now become. While the premium wines will always find a market if the quality is there, I wouldn't like to have to make a living selling the low-end stuff in the crowded UK marketplace where the competition is so strong.

The wines

Facts: in 1999 there were 120 wineries and some 9000 acres under vine; from these figures it's fairly evident that Oregon is dominated by small premium-level producers. More than 60% of wines are red -- the Oregon wine industry is really all about Pinot Noir, which brought the region international recognition in the 1980s. Compared with its southerly neighbour, California, the wine regions here are decidedly cool and rainy, which encourages elegant rather than powerful wines. The majority of wineries are based in the Willamette Valley, running north to south down from Portland to Eugene, a short distance in from the coast. As well as the successful Pinot Noir, there's also some Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, but the most successful whites tend to come from Pinot Gris. Of the wines on show here, I was most impressed by the Pinot Noir from Domaine Drouhin, which was superb. 

The wines

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