Ken Robertson

Platinum XIX: Fine wines from an array of varietals

This fall marked the 18th time I’ve participated as a judge or a panel moderator for Wine Press Northwest magazine’s annual “best of the best” judging of Northwest wines that have won gold medals or better during the year.

With 654 entries, it drew wines from an array of vintages, dating as far back as 2009, with the newest wines from 2017. Of the 39 wines that won double platinum awards, there were 21 different grape varieties represented, not counting the varietals used to make the red and white blends.

Some of those varietals were no surprise. There were, for example, five Rieslings among them, from two states and one Canadian province. Only red blends, a burgeoning category, managed to beat that, with six platinums. Unsurprisingly, four widely grown varietals — Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah — each had two wines in the double platinum category. But so did Washington’s latest darling red, Malbec, and the much lesser grown and lesser known Spanish white wine grape, Albariño.

The diversity of other varietals in the Double Platinums is worth noting: Cabernet Franc, Picpoul, Auxerrois, Siegerrebe, Grüner Veltliner, Grenache, Petit Sirah, Sangiovese, Viognier, Touriga Naçional, Cinsault, Merlot and Mourvedre.

Even among wine lovers, I would guess there are some surprises on this list. Not so many years ago, Picpoul, Auxerrois, Siegerrebe, Albariño, Cinsault, Mouvedre and Touriga Naçional were wines that many of us avid Northwest wine geeks had never encountered.

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Jump to the list of 134 wines that won Platinum awards in addition to the 39 Double Platinum award winners, and even more varietals show up, including Tempranillo, Carménère, Semillon, Ehrenfelser, Sauvignon Blanc, Lemberger, Petit Verdot and a perennial award-winning white blend of Gewürztraminer and Schoenberger, a grape developed in Germany and released for propagation in 1979.

Especially in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, until 15 or so years ago, grape growers, wineries and our regional wine publications were focused largely on the grapes of the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France, with a few Rhone reds showing up. Washington didn’t begin its pioneer plantings of Syrah, now one of the region’s mainstay reds, until 1986, and it wasn’t until the early to mid-1990s that Syrah really began to make its mark.

The last two decades have resulted in an ever-expanding search for the latest “great new thing,” and many once-obscure grapes in the Northwest seem headed into the mainstream and are presenting new and stunning examples of what our region can produce.

The nongrape wines coming out of the Northwest also are gaining respect. Among the Platinum winners were wines made from apples, plums, raspberries and more, including a Double Platinum winner dubbed Dawn Patrol White from Washington’s Westport Winery that combines raspberries and Riesling grapes into a delicious drink. Purists might turn their noses up at the idea, but it does help prove that there truly is something for even the most adventurous palates among wine lovers.

The various vintages of Northwest wines entered also proved that our region can produce some surprisingly long-lived wines, both red and white varieties. For example, a 2009 Merlot still held nice fruit and good tannins despite its age. And an Okanagan Valley ice wine from 2012 won a Platinum for Lang Vineyards and still displayed abundant acidity.

I was particularly interested in the remaining 2012s, one of the Northwest’s best years among these vintages because it was a “Goldilocks” year — not too hot and not too cold, but just about perfect.

The reds from 2012 still possessed the combination of finesse and power that the year offered, as proved by a Cabernet Sauvignon from Barons Winery in Walla Walla made with Columbia Valley grapes. It was gratifying to know Northwest reds retain their ability to age, even as our summers warm.

Wine words: Concrete eggs

Among the trendiest of recent trends in the wine world is aging wine in concrete egg tanks. Adherents will talk about how it produces “rounder” wines, how the concrete has tiny air pockets that allow oxygen to work tiny wonders on the wine and how the concept, although new to many, really is a millennia-old practice that was abandoned in our rush to adopt our many modern innovations.

Some of what you’ll hear verges on eye-rolling mythology. For example, that an egg-shaped vessel with its rounded interior is naturally superior at softening the wine it holds. A square or rectangular tank made of concrete — or for that matter granite, which made up many of the pool-sized tanks I saw in Spain earlier this year — is likely to perform just as many of the miracles attributed to “eggs.”

It’s certainly true that concrete aging is a process that likely dates back to not too long after the Romans developed concrete roughly 2,000 years ago. And concrete’s tiny oxygen-containing air pockets, which drain out and are replenished each time a tank is emptied, apparently do perform some of the aging elements that soften tannins, augment mouth feel and preserve aromas.

One clear advantage is that a thick layer of concrete provides great insulation, both for keeping wines cool and for managing the speed of fermentation without employing refrigerant jackets.

However much of the benefits are real or imagined, such tanks are durable, simple to maintain and, for now, trendy and add a little cachet to the winemaking and winery. So, toast those clever Romans once again for inventing the miracle of concrete next time you sip a glass of wine from your favorite winery’s “eggs.”

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