Dan Berger

Better than Borscht

For some wine is more than a beverage, or just a liquid to get excited about. Beet juice is roughly the same color, but I never heard anyone get very excited about borscht, which basically is the same as it was a century ago.

Wine evolves. As it does, we either adapt or get left behind to recall the good ol’ days, with all its foibles. Whichever we choose, the present (and the future) or the dim past, one thing is certain: it’s always in transition.

Consumer tastes and vintages change; winemakers adopt a bravado leading to new (and not always better) ideas; climates change. Thus grape varieties change. And the closer you are to it, the less likely you are to notice the changes. It’s best seen over time.

As an “outsider” to Pacific Northwest wines, I see some of the changes more clearly. They’re not incremental. I’m here only once a year to judge the Wine Press Northwest Platinum competition, Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman’s superb event, which now is one of the nation’s premier regional competitions.

Unlike in some past Platinum events, the 2018 showed serious advancement in the overall breed. There was some definite backsliding too, which was revealed by a global look at each category.

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts on what I saw, rated as:

A – Superb wines worth buying;

B – An Important Problem that’s solvable;

C – Not a Terribly Important problem, but one that’s Personally Irritating.

D -- An Observation (just me being picky).

(A) Cabernet Franc: This was the most obvious grand leap forward. Terrific acidity along with noticeably lower tannins made for red wines that had less astringency than Cab Sauv yet still had the overall personality of the Cab family. The mineral and soil notes, which included aromatics that included graphite, dried savory herbs, sage, cassis and even traces of raspberry were greatly appealing.

(A) Aromatic White Blends: With the appropriate use of cold-climate aromatic grapes to boost floral aromas and high acidities and lower sugars, alcohols, and pH levels, this a category to pursue. With Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and other aromatic grape varieties, these wines can be refreshingly dry and work with a wide array of foods. Winemakers must be alert to pitfalls, such as too much sugar or higher pHs.

(A) Grenache: This Spanish and southern Rhône variety adds lots to red blends. Lately seen as a varietal here, Grenache delivers bright cranberry and pomegranate aromatics and flavors. Our judging panel handed out four platinum awards and a double-platinum to 10 wines, validating the excellence of the fruit and winemakers’ ability to capture it.

(A) Uncommon White Varietals: Again, it’s the aromatics that lead the way, validated by platinums for Grüner Veltliner, Ehrenfelser, Picpoul (!), and Auxerrois.

(A) Carmènére: Chile has developed a small, but growing following in the United States for this grape, but rarely are the wines distinctive. As a varietal in the Pacific Northwest, it is clearly a delight.

(A) Albariño: This dramatically floral grape is one of the most ideal for this cooler climate region, the judges on our panel gave out nothing but double gold and platinum awards.

(B) Gewürztraminer: The effort to avoid bitterness in this grape of Alsace has moved too far toward sugar. It’s better to leave the residual sugar alone and simply have better acidity. Or press very lightly.

(B) Red Blend based on Merlot: When the Merlot grape isn’t used for a varietal, I assume it may be because the fruit wasn’t quite up to snuff to do so. So in a certain way, using second quality Merlot in a blend may be likened to a salvage operation. As such it can be a reasonably nice wine if the winemaker understands why it is being produced.

(B) Red Blends based on Cabernet Franc: Even a grape as excellent as this one cannot ultimately save several of the wines we tried. Three wines got platinum medals, which we attributed to the greatness of the grape. Still, because Franc is a more interesting grape than its older brother, some of these wines were simply in need of some time to age.

(C) Merlot: This group was somewhat disappointing, although the top wines generally were made by people who understood the grape. In general, consumers must consider aerating these wines, and be patient with them in the cellar because of extraneous tannins. In some cases prices were far too high for what the consumer wants.

(D) Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet makes an excellent red wine IF YOU HAVE THE PATIENCE TO AGE IT. The grape is occasionally tannic and higher in alcohol than necessary. When grapes are picked early, when the pH is moderate, and the wine has good structural balance, the grape can deliver longer-lived wines that are great dinner companions. Our panel tasted 26 of them and awarded four platinums and a double platinum and liked many of the wines quite a bit. But the tannins were nasty.

(A) Malbec: Ever since Argentina established itself as a beachhead for this minor Bordeaux blender 25 years ago, it has been seen here as plump, rich, soft, and easy to quaff. But recently we have noticed a trend: Malbec in cooler climes. As a result, New Word Malbecs are generally more like the grape, with blueberry, spice and superb richness without bite.

Final message: The Platinum competition is a terrific guide to great wines.

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