Photos By:: Adil Arora
Coming down in the elevator from The Connaught at the rooftop of Hotel Oberoi Delhi after tasting over two dozen Washington State wines last Thursday, I heard two Italian hotel guests talking to each other with one explaining to the other in Italian (capisco abbastanza bene l’italiana) the difference between Washington DC and Washington State. While the former is the capital of the US with Delhi-like status, the latter is the northwesternmost federal state bordering Canada- known in India for Boeings and Washington apples but, to a much lesser extent, wines even though it is the second largest producing state after California. Not many would be aware that Washington DC has the biggest annual per capita consumption of wine at 6.6 gallons (25 liters) which is almost twice that of California with only 3.4 gallons (12.9 liters) in 2009, making it one of the important markets for the Washington State wines.
Washington Wineries Represented
Ste Michel Wine Estates is of course the largest producer group in Washington State, controlling 60-70% of the total production, owning a number of wineries. It has also collaborated with Dr. Loosen in Eroica for Riesling and Antinori for Col Solare. For the group International Vice President Al Portney who has already been to India since they entered the Indian market in 2005, it was like a homecoming. These two wineries along with Chateau Ste Michel and Columbia Crest are already represented in India for years through Brindco, while Red Diamond is now represented by Berkmann Wine Cellars. Al was busy swirling wine and sniffing for a distributor for their 14 Hands, North Star and Snoqualmie wineries-the last one had some very interesting, good quality wines. Claar Cellars is represented by a relatively unknown importer Agnetta International. L’Ecole N˚ 41 was earlier imported by Sonarys. Since divorced, they are seeking a new partner. Others on the look- out for the honey-pot were Covey Run, Columbia Winery, Hedges Family Estate, Powers Winery, and Seven Hills Winery, a majority of whom were showcasing their wines from Columbia Valley.
Brief History of Washington wines and Appellations
Washington State claims ‘the perfect climate for wine’ though relatively a young American wine region. Although the first commercial plantings and modern winemaking dates back to the 1960s, the industry started taking off in the 1970s. The first AVA (American Viticultural Areas- the American appellation system) came up only in 1983 with Yakima Valley which today boasts the biggest appellation, with a third of the vines grown in the whole state being here. Walla Walla and Columbia Valley (1984) are also well regarded appellations. Puget Sound was recognized as the 4th appellation, much later in 1995. This appellation covers Seattle and areas to the north and south of the city.
Out of the total of 11 appellations, 7 are a decade old or less- Red Mountain (2001), Columbia Gorge (2004), Horse Heaven Hills (2005), Wahluke Slope (2006) Rattlesnake Hills (2006); Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan are barely 2 years old.
Riding the Merlot wave in the early eighties, there were 19 wineries in 1981. But the number kept rising fast with an increase in the local consumption, crossing 700 in 2010. There was an enormous increase in the number of small, boutique wineries from 208 in 2002 to 650 in 2009-reminiscent of the growth rate in Maharashtra. This is evidenced by the fact that though the number increased by over 300%, the acreage went up by less than 15%-from 28,000 to 32,000 acres in 7 years. However, 2010 saw a substantial increase in the vineyard acreage to 40,000, according to the WSWC figures.
Terroir- driven Riesling rides the popularity wave for white wines that also include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as the most popular varietals. The reds are denominated by Merlots although with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot also in the spectrum and with Shiraz becoming popular during the last 10 years because of special characteristics, there is a visible emphasis on Bordeaux blends with Shiraz added frequently.
Washington State Wine Commission (WSWC)
WSWC was formed in 1987 to raise awareness through targeted marketing and promotions. Although initial efforts have been focused on Washington and other American states, it has done very well in Chicago, Washington DC and Denver, says Madeline Dow a representative of WSWC who was busy pouring on the first day, with most producers staying away as the harvest period has just begun. She also explained that their best export market was Japan where their wines are very strong in Retail. The other important market is Canada, despite it being complex because of being a monopoly.
The speed-tasting of wines from most of the producers in the short time available in which I rated the wines from 82-94, it was clear that oak is still predominant where the barriques have been used, including the whites. But several of the wines between $20-35 offered great value for money compared to California. Bordeaux blends and Shiraz were generally superior although a couple of Merlots had the award winning quality. Hedge, Snoqualmie and Seven Hills seemed to offer good value although L’Ecole would find more takers since the foundation has already been laid by Sonarys, their first agent.
When in a good mood, Oberoi Delhi is capable of a very proficient and professional service which was evident in the tasting room and the dinner in Nilgiri next day but was disgusting and disappointing in the terrace outside. With two mist fans that had completely wetted the vinyl seats and the seating areas and the high standing-service tables full of un-cleared used glasses and plates up to three high (pics available on request) for long periods, it reminded one of the infinite dhabas adorning the Delhi- Chandigarh highway, complete with decorative rows of mini lights.
Washington State Wine Dinner
After the marathon tasting of the first day, the 6 wines served at the sit- down dinner for a select few, organised by Gaurav Anand, Certified Sommelier who had done the food and wine pairing as also the event, were very enjoyable. Eroica Riesling 2009 made in collaboration with Dr. Loosen did not have the Mosel stamp on it but it was a medium bodied crisp, fresh and fruity wine with the Washington personality that should make it a very popular wine. Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells Chardonnay 2007 had very interesting coffee bean and spicy aromas but did not add any synergy to the chicken and morel stew. Seven Hills Viognier 2010 on the other hand seemed slightly over- the- top with oak but matched the food much better, showing off its spicy character with aplomb.
Hedges two- wine match with the main course dish of Chettinad spiced NZ lamb paired very well but the Hedges Mountain Bordeaux Blend 2008 would have worked wonders if it had been decanted for 30 minutes before serving. Left unfinished in the glass for a while, it became a totally different personality with the wine opening up and complex flavours of berry fruits, coffee, molten dark chocolate exploding on the palate. A few more minutes would have helped the 2008 wine to show off even more, bringing out the elegance. Many preferred the slightly spicy Hedges Descendents Liegeois Dupont Syrah 2009 (is the producers confused between the New and the Old World while labeling this wine?) which was otherwise a natural mate for the lamb.
Chateau Ste Michelle Merlot 2009 was quite luscious and juicy and as it was a medium-bodied fruity wine, it handled the soft cheeses quite well though seasoned hard cheeses would have enhanced its flavours much more.
Powers Muscat Canelli 2010 with 40 gms of residual sugar and 12% alcohol was too weak for the kulfi and sandesh. Drinking on its own, it was fresh and crisp but for a touch of bitterness in the after-taste which surprisingly, got accentuated with the desserts which were too sweet for the wine and were totally at war with each other on the palate. It would have perhaps made a better match with a spicy, hot Kerala dish.
One of the interesting events organised by WSWC is the annual ‘Taste Washington’ held every Spring in Seattle with over 200 wineries taking part explained Ryan Pennington, the PR Director of the Commission. This reminded me that our Indian Grape Processing Board (IGPB) needed to buckle up and soon start organizing an annual ‘Taste India’ event starting with Mumbai in October- November where new vintages of all the wines from Maharashtra could be tasted. It could possibly take the event to Bangalore and Delhi. Unfortunately, unlike in Washington where each grower and producer is a member of the WSWC, there is no such compulsion so far in India.
Young Madeline Dow, the other active representative from the Commission, who was also seated on my table said that she really loved another program of WSWC ‘20something-the new vintage’-also held in Seattle in November (post harvest) , which was geared for 20+ young people where wine tasting was combined with education, food sampling and of course the foot stomping music with the DJs. Rather than standing behind the tables, the sommeliers and producers walk around, pour and discuss wine in an informal atmosphere with the 1500 people that usually attend this event. A good idea to emulate-except we shall have to title it ‘25something’ for obvious reasons!
It was a pleasant surprise to see the American charge d’Affaires Mr A Peter Burleigh, acting as the Ambassador since Tim Roemer left India earlier this year as the US Ambassador. If there is any temporary diplomatic coolness between Indo-US relationships, it was not at all visible with him being his witty self, sharing jokes only wine lovers share normally, breaking protocol and diplomatic reservations. He stayed for the full dinner and interacted with everyone. Also supporting the event was the Senior Agricultural Attaché David Leishman who, sitting next to me, told me he was an avid reader of delWine though we had never met.
Washington wines have been improving in quality at a fast pace and their higher quality wines are relatively lower priced. However, the WSWC will need continued efforts and a medium- term commitment to India to build up an alternative to California as the US wine supplier. Meanwhile, if you go to Washington DC to meet President Obama or lesser mortals, check out a few wine bars but don’t make the mistake of requesting a ‘local’ wine- ask for a ‘Washington State’ instead!