I lived overseas for five years; now, when I think of traveling, it hardly seems to count if I don’t need my passport. Recently, though, having been brutalized by the Euro, I’ve had occasion to give more attention to wines in my own backyard. (It’s the traveling that’s gotten pricey, not the wines; so far most importers are cutting their margins to hold on to their place in the U.S. market). Anyway, here’s an appellation-acrostic look at some wines for the holidays; it doesn’t cover all of America, but it’s certainly American enough to find a place in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Chehalem Mountains: Inspired, one must presume, by Burgundy and their endless sub-divisions, growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley continue to carve it up into more distinct AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). The Chehalem Mountains AVA was officially recognized last year, and cuts diagonally across the top of the Willamette region. It’s home to 31 wineries, including the likes of Adelsheim and Ponzi, who pioneered the Willamette Valley’s reputation for Pinot Noir starting back in the 1970s. The Adelsheim Calkins Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($46) exemplifies the concentration and dark fruit character of the AVA; black plum, dark cherry, and cola, aromas are touched by some light spice. Open and decant this one early if you’re serving it now; if you’re fortunate enough to find it under the tree this Christmas, put it away for a few years to get the most out of it.
Hudson River Region: I grew up in this area, so it may carry more nostalgic holiday feelings for me than for others. A friend of mine, who also grew up there, doesn’t remember the sweet, simple wines of the area’s past very fondly; I hope I’ve convinced him that today’s producers are doing something more. Benmarl Winery bridges the gap; try their 2006 Baco Noir ($28) to see how an old-school, hybrid grape takes to up-to-date winemaking. It’s a well-balanced snapshot of the grape’s typicity: medium-bodied, with spice, pepper, game, and black cherry notes, and just enough tannins to dry out the finish. A good alternative for fans of earthy Pinots or cool-climate Syrahs.
Red Mountain: If you come to Red Mountain from Seattle, over the Cascades, it doesn’t really live up to the name – it’s more of a hill – but I suppose early pioneers, heading the opposite direction, would have found it sufficiently mountainous after weeks spent on the plains. In any case, the wines don’t show any of that inadequacy; it’s home to a few of Washington’s top reds – the daytime heat and cool nights seem particularly friendly to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The Kiona Vineyards Red Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($30), for example, has the kind of richness, chocolate, and dark fruit aromas – blueberry, huckleberry – that could become overwhelming without the structure and acidity that those cool evenings bring forth.
Idaho: In the Pacific Northwest, the wines of Oregon and Washington have the hot reputations these days, but pre-Prohibition, Idaho was the leader. The Snake River area, in the south of the state, has many of the same advantages as Washington’s vineyards, and vines are once again replacing potatoes as the preferred crop (Is there a potato-wine connection? The same change happened on Long Island’s North Fork.). The Koenig Winery has a foot in both camps, old and new; they make wines, but also pay their respects to the local potato by making vodka. Given the area’s similarities to eastern Washington, it’s no surprise to find Syrah thriving here. Koenig’s Three Vineyards Cuvée Syrah 2004 ($20), for example, has lots of dark berry and cherry flavors, plus some earthy spice, smoke, and vanilla.
Sonoma Coast: This is one of those big, generic sounding appellations that seems suited to generic wines from big companies. There are a number of overlaps with other appellations, and smaller sub-AVAs like Fort Ross-Seaview are pending government approval. Meanwhile, a number of talented winemakers are getting on with the business of making site-specific, high-quality wines. Hanzell, for one, keeps it simple, making only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, in the Burgundian model. The 2004 Chardonnay ($65) is delicious; full, muscular, and firm, with powerful minerality as well as notes of pear, honey, and baked bread. It’s really too young to get the most out of it now; decant hours beforehand, or put it aside to celebrate Christmas again in ten years time.
Texas: Texas may seem like beer country, but some of the state’s Spanish and German settlers were determined to have a go at wine as far back as the1600s (Casa Madero, Mexico’s oldest winery, isn’ far from the border.) so there is some depth to the state’s winegrowing tradition. Becker Vineyards replanted their site with quality wine grapes about fifteen years ago, eschewing the existing, native Mustang variety, which is still grown in some parts of the state. While hot Texas may seem like a red wine region (It goes so well with beef, too.), the Becker Vineyards Viognier 2006 ($15) shows that white wine grapes can more than hold their own. The nose has lots of floral peach aromas, but on the palate it broadens into mango and mandarin notes. It’s full-bodied and round, but finishes clean.
Michigan: Middle of the alphabet, middle of the country; if Michigan seems a bit northern for grape growing, keep in mind that it’s a peninsula, surrounded by water, which can have a moderating effect on the growing season. Like Alsace, it seems to take to white grapes quite well; in fact, Left Foot Charley (yes, that’s a winery name) has decided that the Alsace varieties Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris are what shows off their state’s wine potential best. Their 2006 Pinot Blanc ($18) is poised between Alsace-style aperitif and Californian would-be Chardonnay. So it’s got some body, and lots of ripe pear and baked apple aromas, but no oak, and still has some acidity for lift and refreshment on the finish.
Anderson Valley: Should I not do this? Give California two mentions? Seeing as it makes more than 90% of our nation’s wine, it seems only fair. I can leaven it with some foreign investment, this time from Champagne. While many Champagne houses invested in Carneros, just off the San Francisco Bay, Louis Roederer went farther north, to rural Anderson Valley – one of the state’s coolest winegrowing regions, perfect for preserving the acidity that’s so essential for sparkling wine. At $20, the Roederer Estate Brut MV is a steal; the blend is dominated by Chardonnay, which brings crisp lemon, pear, and green apple notes, but judicious use of oak-aged reserve wines add in toastiness and vanilla; brioche touches from lees-aging knit everything together.
Somewhere Else: Okay, I give in, I’m cheating; I wanted to include something from Virginia; and I thought the Shenandoah Valley would do the trick, getting that ‘S” in. Virginia also seemed a likely place to end an American wine tour, since it was there that Thomas Jefferson made several efforts to produce our country’s first wines. However, as I search my notes, I realize that I’m coming up short – I can do Virginia, but I don’t have any worthwhile notes on Shenandoah wines at the moment. In the holiday spirit, I hope you’ll forgive me; I, in turn, will make it my New Year’s Resolution to rectify the problem. So for this Christmas, I’ll turn to elsewhere in Virginia and recommend the Rappahannock Cellars ‘Meriwether Vineyard’ Chardonnay 2006 ($19). They do without oak for this wine, and without the softening effects of malolactic fermentation. The result is medium-bodied and Chablis-like, but fruitier; just a touch of flintiness lies hidden beneath tangerine, lemon, and melon notes.
(prices are approximate):
Roederer Estate Brut MV ($20) California
Becker Vineyards Viognier 2006 ($15), Texas
Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc 2006 ($18), Michigan
Rappahannock Cellars ‘Meriwether Vineyard’ Chardonnay 2006 ($19), Virginia
Hanzell Chardonnay 2004 ($65), California
Koenig Winery Three Vineyards Cuvée Syrah 2004 ($20), Idaho
Benmarl Winery Baco Noir 2006 ($28)
Kiona Vineyards Red Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($30), Washington
Adelsheim Calkins Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($46), Oregon