Saturday, March 5, 2011

Top Ten Washington Wines Under $15

In today's economy, conservatively priced wines are a must for most households. But just because you have to give a little on price, doesn't mean you have to budge an inch on quality. Certain regions around the globe produce stunning wines that double your pleasure and double your fun without doubling your cost.

One of those places is Washington state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Year after year Washington puts out spectacular juice, much of which retails for less than $20. Add that to the 400% growth in the number of Washington wineries over the last decade and you have a recipe for the Top Ten Washington Wines Under $15.

1. Pacific Rim - Riesling - Columbia Valley, Washington 2009 - $11
There's a soft spot in my heart for this week's number one. Pacific Rim winery was founded in 1992 by wacky winemaker Randall Grahm of the famed Bonny Doon Vineyards in California. In 2011 Grahm sold Pacific Rim to the Mariani family, proprietors of Italian wine giant Banfi.

Last week I recorded an interview podcast with Nicolas Quille, Pacific Rim General Manager and self-proclaimed Riesling Zealot. He assured me that since the sale, things at the winery have been "business as usual" and that the Mariani family was not interested in changing the operation.

Pacific Rim is an eco-friendly producer making more than ten different styles of Riesling. From sparkling and still to dry and sweet, the winery prides themselves in showcasing the versatility of the grape. I'd classify this particular Riesling as off-dry. It displays characteristics of peaches, pears, green apples, and apricots, and makes for a great partner to spicy Asian dishes as well as Mexican cuisine. A steal for $11.

2. DiStefano - Sauvignon Blanc - Columbia Valley, Washington 2009 - $15
Best known for their full-bodied reds made from varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, DiStefano Winery was founded in the mid 1980's by computer hardware developer Mark Newton and his wife Donna DiStefano. In addition to famous reds, the winery also produces a small amount of award-winning Sauvignon Blanc, proving that size doesn't always matter.

The DiStefano Sauvignon Blanc is a bit fatter than the now-popular, lean New Zealand Sauv Blancs, but it's still clean and refreshing. It displays aromas and flavors of limes, pears, peaches, and nectarines, with a wonderful floral component complimented by a slight herbal factor. This racy white will pair well with seafood, especially deep fried. You haven't truly explored Sauvignon Blanc until you've tried DiStefano Sauv Blanc.

3. Hogue - Gewurztraminer - Columbia Valley, Washington 2009 - $11
Hogue was founded by Mike and Gary Hogue in 1982. It was the state's 19th bonded winery of the now more than 550. In 2001 the estate was sold to Canadian wine group Vincor, owned by United States wine giant Constellation Brands, for a recorded $36.4 million. Today Hogue is one of Washington's largest wineries, producing over half a million cases annually.

The Hogue Gewurztraminer is a spicy little devil, displaying flavors and aromas of lychee nut and pear followed by stone fruit characteristics of apricot and peach. Behind all that fruit, the wine showcases spicy clove-like characteristics. This wine would do well with spicy Asian dishes, especially made from pork or chicken.

4. Castle Rock - Chardonnay - Columbia Valley, Washington 2009 - $10
Castle Rock was founded in 1994 by Greg Popovich, and has quickly grown into a major producer, making more than half a million cases of wine in 2009. Since the winery's inception, the goal has been to produce value-packed wines from site-specific regions. According to their website, "Castle Rock's wines are carefully made from grapes grown in the most prestigious areas of the West Coast states - California (Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Mendocino County, Monterey County, Alexander Valley), Oregon (Willamette Valley), and Washington (Columbia Valley)."

Their Columbia Valley Chardonnay displays characteristics of tropical fruit, citrus fruit, and a hint of tree fruit, while five months in French oak barrels imparted a wonderful vanilla flavor and aroma in the glass. It's ripe and round, but has a surprisingly clean finish. Pair this one with cream sauce pasta dishes and grilled chicken or pork.

5. Charles & Charles - 'Volume II' Rosé - Columbia Valley, Washington 2009 - $11
Charles & Charles is produced by Charles Smith, founder of both K Vintners and The Magnificent Wine Company in Washington, of which a large portion was sold to Precept Wine Brands in 2006. After his success with these wineries, he created the Charles Smith Wines: The Modernist Project line, releasing the first vintage in 2007. This brand showcases the producer's modern, rockstar-like winemaking mentality. Charles Smith wines are balanced, fresh, and flavorful, and made to be consumed young. My favorite Charles Smith quote: “It’s just booze – drink it!”

The 2009 'Volume II' Rosé is made from Syrah, and displays fresh flavors and aromas of raspberries, cherries, strawberries, and pomegranates. It has weight, acidity, structure and balance, making it a great partner to most foods, especially over a summer grill. Look for the Charles & Charles 2010 Rosé release on March 14th.

6. The Magnificent Wine Company - Steak House Red - Columbia Valley, Washington 2007 - $10
Sticking with Charles Smith, but changing brands, here's a wine that embodies the amazing quality you can get for the price in Washington state. As I mentioned, The Magnificent Wine Company was founded by Charles Smith. In 2006 he sold a large portion of the company to Precept Wine Brands, a wine group that represents labels like Canoe Ridge Vineyard and Waterbrook. Today their flagship label is their House Wine line, but they also make a Fish House and Steak House series. All of the wines in the portfolio display amazing depth and quality for the price.

The 2007 Steak House Red is made up of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and showcases red fruit characteristics of cherry and red currant along with blackberry flavors and aromas. What I love about this wine is how supple and round it is. As you may have guessed by the name, this wine pairs well with steak, especially when pan seared.

7. Snoqualmie - 'Naked' Merlot - Columbia Valley, Washington 2008 - $12
Snoqualmie was founded in 1984, and is a part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates portfolio, a wine group that also owns Chateau Ste. Michelle, 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, and several others. The secrets to the winery's success is quality grape selection and winemaker Joy Anderson, who has been with the estate since 1991. The Snoqualmie 'Naked' line is made with certified organic grapes in a certified organic facility.

The 2008 'Naked' Merlot is loaded with dark fruit characteristics of blackcurrant, blackberry, and black cherry. It is full bodied with well-balanced tannins and acidity. For those of you who don't much care for the plummy, over-produced style of Merlot that became popular in the 90's, check out this gem. For only $12 this risqué red is sure to blow your hair back. Plus it's a great wine for roasts or grilled meat.

8. Columbia Crest - 'Two Vines' Vineyard 10 Red - Washington 2008 - $8
Like Snoqualmie, Columbia Crest is owned by the larger Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. In 2009 the 2005 Columbia Crest Columbia Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon earned a 95-point rating from Wine Spectator, solidifying its spot as the number one wine on Spectator's Top 100 list. An amazing feat for a $25 bottle. 'Two Vines' was created to offer customers an entry level Columbia Crest wine. Vineyard 10 overlooks the Columbia River and marks one of the original Columbia Crest estate vineyards.

The 2008 'Two Vines' Vineyard 10 Red is made from a blend of Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre, and Viognier. This Rhone-inspired red is full bodied, with dark fruit. It has a nice spice component that adds a little complexity to this otherwise juicy, fruit-forward, easy-drinking quaffer. Try this wine with wild game, especially roasted.

9. Chateau Ste. Michelle - Syrah - Columbia Valley, Washington 2007 - $13
No value-packed Washington wine list would be complete without a selection from Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM). Like Snoqualmie and Columbia Crest, this wine is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. It's rumored that Chateau Ste. Michelle and their affiliates make nearly 70% of the total wine produced in Washington state. It's easy to talk negatively about CSM because they're a large producer, but at the end of the day they make some delicious wine for the price, with a wide variety of wines offered in a range of price points.

The 2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle is primarily Syrah with just a dash of Viognier to round out the corners. This process of blending small quantities of Viognier (a white grape) with Syrah (a black grape) originated in the Cote Rotie sub-region of France's Rhone region. This wine displays raspberries and blackberries along with black pepper and nutmeg on both the nose and palate. Its spicy, full bodied profile makes it an obvious pairing for Lamb and other red meat dishes.

10. Boomtown by Dusted Valley - Cabernet Sauvignon - Columbia Valley, Washington 2007 - $15
Dusted Valley was founded in 2003 by Wisconsin natives Corey Braunel and Chad Johnson, and the Boomtown line pays tribute to the booming Washington wine industry. The winery is located in Walla Walla, a sub-region in Washington that is home to more than 100 wineries.

The 2007 Boomtown Cabernet Sauvignon is loaded with dark fruit aromas of blackcurrant and black cherry. It's full bodied, firm, yet balanced, and refined. Complete with a dash of Cabernet Franc and Malbec and a healthy hand of oak, this is what a good quality Cab from the Pacific Northwest should taste like. Try this wine with a big ol' steak, or another glass of Boomtown Cab; it's up to you.

A list like this is getting harder and harder to put together as the state's wine industry continues to grow. In 1999 there were 144 wineries in Washington state, today there are more than 700 producing more than 12 million cases annually. One of the reasons: The Columbia Valley, Washington's premier wine growing area, has a constant climate ideal for growing grapes. The Cascade Mountain range blocks much of the rain from the Pacific creating a hot, desert-like area, and the region only receives 6-8 inches of rainfall annually. If you are looking for value, consistency, and good quality, look no further than Washington wines.

If there's a value-packed Washington wine on your list that you think should've made mine, leave a comment here, find me on Facebook, or shoot me an email. For more information about me, more fun and interesting wine information, and for delicious food and wine pairings, check us out online at Cru Wine Online. Our very own chefs from across the country have created original recipes just for you, and each day we pair them with the perfect wine and a little humor to bring you an entertaining video short.

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Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

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