There’s one thing to be said about 2020: It’s been a year of the unexpected.
The results of Wine Press Northwest’s 23rd Annual Platinum Judging, like the year, were full of surprises, at least for me. Before the 720-plus entries were judged, I would have guessed Washington Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, Oregon Pinot Noir and German-styled white wines from British Columbia would grab the headlines. As for Idaho, it would get another encouraging pat on the head for a few standout wines.
That’s been the general pattern over the life of the competition, even as the region’s number of wineries and wine production have grown roughly tenfold over the last two-plus decades. And it’s what I expected as one of three judging panel moderators for the three-day competition, where I also wrote tasting notes for the roughly 230 wines my judging panel tasted.
What was so unusual? Reviewing the 52 wines awarded double-platinum, which means all three judges on each panel rated them exceptional, several things stood out:
1. The most double platinums for a single varietal — eight — went to Syrahs from an array of six American Viticultural Areas in Washington: Red Mountain, the Horse Heaven Hills (2), the Wahluke Slope, the Yakima Valley (2), the Columbia Valley and Lake Chelan. It’s clear you can grow great Syrah throughout Eastern Washington.
2. The Northwest’s perennial favorites among red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, each had six double-platinum winners, again from several AVAs each. For Cabernet, they came from the Columbia Valley (4), the Wahluke Slope, and the Lewis-Clark AVA shared by Washington and Idaho. For Pinot Noir, the double platinums were from the Willamette Valley (4), Eola-Amity Hills and Puget Sound.
3. Yes, Puget Sound is right and worth noting. The often-unacclaimed AVA produced a double-platinum Pinot Noir. Skagit Crest Vineyard & Winery used estate fruit to make this surprising wine.
4. Grüner Veltliner, a white wine grape that’s a favorite in Austria, was used to make two of the double-platinums , both from Oregon’s Umpqua Valley.
5. Two wines got perfect scores — a Platinum+ rating — from all three judges on their respective panels, a first for the competition. One was an entry made from Grüner Veltliner grown at Stephen Reustle’s Prayer Rock Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley, the Estate Selection 2017 Hefeabzug. The other was one of the six double platinum Syrahs, Cascade Cliffs Vineyard & Winery’s Estate Selection 2018 Winemaker’s Select made from grapes grown at Shaw Vineyard on Red Mountain.
6. Idaho deserves more than a little credit for the resourcefulness of its winemakers. Its vineyards are small and sometimes don’t produce enough grapes to meet demand. So winemakers regularly reach into neighboring Washington for grapes and make outstanding wines. Coco and Karl Umiker of Lewiston have done especially well with their ventures into Washington, and this year they won five double platinums for wines Coco made from grapes grown in the Horse Heaven Hills, Yakima Valley and the Lewis-Clark Valley.
The list of top wines reflects some trends that have emerged in the Northwest over the past decade. Among red wines, Malbec (3), Carménère (2) and Cabernet Franc (2) all continue to show great promise. Merlot, once Washington’s most popular red wine, claimed five double-platinum awards.
Red blends also collected five double platinums, all made with red grapes originally grown in Bordeaux. Viognier (2) and Roussanne, two whites originally grown in France’s Rhône Valley, won double platinums. Albariño grapes grown in Washington also won two double platinums. These three whites offer a great alternative to the world’s most popular white wine grape, Chardonnay.
Pinot Gris, known as Pinot Grigio in Italy, showed its versatility if an imaginative winemaker decides to experiment. Besides winning a double platinum in a traditional style with an entry from Melrose Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley, a radically different version, dubbed Angelica Pinot Grigio and made as a fortified wine, won a double platinum for Eleven Winery and winemaker Matt Albee. It was the competition’s top fortified wine.
The Northwest continued to show its versatility in growing top-tier wine grapes from an array of regions around the world. The double platinums were made from at least 19 different varietals grown in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria.
Wine word: Mutage
This edition’s wine word is particularly fitting for the holiday season, the time of year when sitting in front of a fire and sipping a glass of Port or some other fortified wine is a rewarding way to end the evening.
Simply put, it’s the process of adding spirits — alias grain alcohol — to a fermenting wine to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation process. The alcohol poisons the yeast, ending fermentation and keeping the sweetness level desired by the Port maker.
Arnau de Vilanova generally is credited with the innovation back in the 13th century during his busy life as a translator of medical texts from Arabic, a doctor and royal and papal physician, a philosopher, theologian, teacher and astronomer among other things. Somewhere amidst all of that, he apparently developed the technique we know as mutage, creating high-alcohol sweet wines and laying the foundation for the eventual creation of Port and similar wines.
Among the advantages are that it results in a wine that ages well, is safe to drink because the added alcohol, which raises the wine to about 17% in total, prevents microbes from growing in it, and it also tastes good. And it makes a good companion on a wintry evening when Covid keeps us at home.
KEN ROBERTSON, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.