Food & Drink

Northwest Wine: It takes a lot to make great Northwest wine

We taste through thousands of wines each year in search of great Northwest wines.
We taste through thousands of wines each year in search of great Northwest wines. Great Northwest Wine

What goes into a great wine? That’s a question we get on a regular basis (along with “What’s your favorite wine?”). The answer to the first question depends upon myriad aspects. The answer to the second is “Whatever is in our glass at the moment.”

We taste thousands of wines per year, and only about one in 10 earn our top “Outstanding!” rating. It comes down to a number of factors, including typicity (how much does a Syrah taste like a Syrah), how balanced is the wine (is the fruit in harmony with its tannin structure, acidity and alcohol levels?), and finally, is it delicious?

What does not matter to us is who made it and how much does it cost. Because we judge wines blind, we don’t know those either until after we’ve evaluated it. It’s the most objective way to rate a wine.

Here are a few wines that have earned an “Outstanding!” from our panels in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly.

Love That Red Winery 2015 Deadheat Syrah, Columbia Valley, $32: Woodinville vintner Terry Wells draws some great positioning at the starting gate for this round yet full Syrah with bloodlines of Milbrandts’ Clifton Hill Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope and Olsen Brothers Vineyard in the Yakima Valley near Prosser. All four of the oak barrels were French, with one of them brand new, and the wood treatment shows balance, allowing for aromas of dark blue fruit, toast and white pepper. Inside, it’s plummy, cherry and chocolaty as blueberry skin tannins merely provide some context for a long ride to the finish. Enjoy with Tacos Carnitas.

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2016 Viognier, Oregon, $30: Lynn Penner-Ash long has favored Southern Oregon for her Viognier program, and sites such as Crater View (61 percent) and RoxyAnn (25 percent) have allowed her to more than triple production of this white Rhône variety since 2010. Aromas of Pink Lady apple, white peach, anise and blanched almond lead to flavors of pineapple, dried apricot and cantaloupe. In the background is a fascinating pulse of lime acidity that allows this to stand out from a crowd of Viognier, a grape that easily can lead to flabbiness. Enjoy with steamed mussels, roasted chicken, pork chops, turkey or springtime salads.

Wind Rose Cellars 2013 Primitivo, Columbia Valley, $25: Few sites in the Pacific Northwest can ripen Primitivo as well as Tedd Wildman’s StoneTree Vineyard high on the Wahluke Slope. Olympic Peninsula winemaker David Volmut, a product of Yakima Valley College’s winemaking program, finished this Primitivo in a style akin to some in Sonoma’s Russian River. There’s a density to the black cherries and dark raspberries that mix with bittersweet chocolate. Silky tannins and sweet pomegranate make for a bright, long and somewhat hedonistic finish.

Freddy Arredondo, a classically trained chef who learned winemaking at Walla Walla Community College, stands between rows of his family’s vineyards at Cave B Estate Winery in George, Wash. Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

Cave B Estate Winery 2016 Cave B Vineyards Cavewoman White Wine, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $14: Freddy Arredondo, a product of Walla Walla Community College’s vaunted viticulture and enology program, has crafted this unusual blend of Sèmillon and Chardonnay off his family’s estate into a wine that’s a traditional standout in north central Washington. This opens with grassy, figgy notes from the Sèmillon, backed by crisp acidity, followed by flavors of tropical fruit including mango and pineapple. This is a complex, pleasing wine that should work great with seafood.

Reininger Winery 2015 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $52: Last year, Chuck Reininger and his family celebrated the 20th anniversary of his eponymous winery in the Walla Walla Valley, and key components to the success during those first two decades have been relationships with Norm McKibben’s Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards. There’s inviting bigness to the aromas of warm chocolate, blackberry and blueberry, which includes hints of leather and squid ink. Those black and blue fruit tones hit the tongue with jammy and juiciness that’s backed by slaty plum-skin tannins. The finish of French roast coffee makes for a long and compelling finish.

Owner/winemaker Stephen Reustle dug into a hillside to create a cellar cave at Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards near Roseburg, Ore. Courtesy Richard Duval Images

Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyard 2016 Estate Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc, Umpqua Valley, $23: Our panels have evaluated this blend of Romancing Rock and Prayer Rock blocks three times within the past 12 months — including double golds at the 2017 Cascadia and Wine Press Northwest’s 2017 Platinum — and there’s no denying that Stephen Reustle is a wizard with cool-climate whites in Southern Oregon. Mouthwatering aromas of pineapple, Meyer lemon and Key lime pie lead to brisk and yet balanced flavors of Granny Smith apple and lime that are capped by yellow grapefruit and more pineapple.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company;