Ken Robertson

Sauvignon Blanc a surprising star at Platinums

For the past 18 years, Wine Press Northwest has conducted its annual Platinum judging of the “best of the best” by bringing together many of the Northwest’s gold-medal winners of the year for a competition that showcases the region’s best wines.

I’ve taken part in almost all of the judgings, either as a tasting panel moderator, a judge or, early on, as a silent judge, someone called on to offer observations only when the active judges or the moderator decide to seek another point of view.

From the beginning, I’ve pondered over the results, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not, but I’ve always found it worthwhile to hear the judges discuss their observations and opinions. Then afterward, I review the results from all the judging panels.

For 2017, I found some surprises among the 660 entries, 35 Double Platinum medals (which means the judges agreed unanimously that a wine was worthy of that award) and 165 Platinums. Some observations focusing on those 35 Double Platinums:

Sauvignon Blanc wowed the judges. Four Double Platinum wines were made from this often-overlooked grape. Yet, as of 2011 (the most recent numbers available), it was planted on only 1,173 acres in Washington state, or less than 2 percent of the total wine grape plantings, according to the Washington State Wine Commission. At the time, there was almost six times as much Riesling and seven times as much Chardonnay. If anything, that gap likely has grown, because some growers have replaced less profitable white wines with high-dollar reds.

The Sauvignon Blanc award winners came from British Columbia’s Naramata Bench up in the Okanagan Valley, from Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, from Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills and Frenchman Hills Vineyard in the Columbia Valley AVA. That geographic variety indicates Sauvignon Blanc is also a highly adaptable grape.

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Bordeaux-style red blends with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot as the lead grape also won Four Double Platinums. Considering the proliferation of red blends, this isn’t a surprise, but for comparison, stroll down a wine aisle and compare the shelf space devoted to red blends with that for Sauvignon Blanc. The two red blend Merlots were both from the Columbia Valley AVA and the two red blend cabs from the Columbia Valley and the Red Mountain AVAs.

Merlot won three Double Platinums. For a grape that’s supposedly fallen on hard times, it sure pleased the judges. Interestingly, all the Merlot entries for the entire competition were grown in Washington and all the Double Platinums in the Columbia Valley AVA.

Cabernet Sauvignon may be king, but it had to share the top red wine honors with Merlot, with three Double Platinums, all from grapes grown in Washington. One was from the Red Mountain AVA, two from the Columbia Valley.

A couple of relative newcomers also made impressive showings.

Grüner Veltliner took two Double Platinums, including the top wine of the competition. Both were from Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and made by Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards. Stephen Reustle seems to have a lock on making superb wines from this Austrian grape, but others are starting to follow his example. Perhaps it’s time for our region’s grape growers to do a little more research into the wines of Austria.

Mourvèdre also won two Double Platinums and placed No. 4 and No. 5 in the competition. Both were from Washington, one from Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley AVA, the other from Elephant Mountain in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Double Platinum wines were made from at least 22 different grape varieties, as best as I could tell from the information available on the red and white blends. I believe that indicates the Northwest can find a climate suitable for almost any grape, whether it’s Washington’s Red Mountain AVA that’s known for its long, hot summers or the cool and often rainy Willamette Valley where ripening Pinot Noir can get a bit dodgy when fall rains arrive early.

Wine words: “Pét-Nat” wine

Once again, we embark into the wilderness that is the French language seeking to explain a wine term that is rather new and trendy in the United States but dates, in practice at least, to the early 16th century monasteries of southern France.

Even before Brother Dom Perignon began “drinking stars” in the Champagne region back in the 17th century, the monks of the Limoux were making a sparkling wine that the French eventually dubbed Pétillant Naturel. It has gone by several other noms de plume, including méthod rurale, méthod ancestrale, méthod artisanale and method gaillacoise.

In terms of uppityness, I suspect someone felt rurale sounded like the wine of country bumpkins, so it was upscaled to ancestrale, then artisanale, with gaillacoise thrown in to give it the accurate pedigree of often coming from the Gaillac region, one of France’s first grape-growing regions.

Anyway, Pét-Nat wines undergo a single fermentation and then are bottled with no sugar added to await a second fermentation. After several months, that second fermentation consumes most whatever residual sugar remained when the wine was bottled.

The result can be delightful for the adventurous, or perhaps dreadful for those who fear a bit of cloudiness in their wines. When a bottle is opened, the carbon dioxide bubbles stir up the lees in the bottom of the bottle and whatever else had not settled out before bottling.

As one might expect, the wines can be highly variable. Some may appear clear because they have been filtered; others may be a bit murky or even more than a bit. To make these wines well requires more than a little skill and experience. In the mouth, they often reveal low alcohol, some residual sweetness and lively acidity when drunk young. And there’s little point to aging them, experts say.

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