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In search of Washington Pinot Noir
On occasion, we are asked about Washington Pinot Noir. It’s a question that is becoming easier to answer, though examples remain scarce.
More than a decade ago, we would have had just a couple of choices, the best of which was the now-defunct Salishan Vineyards near the town of La Center.
On a visit there around 2002, Joan Wolverton (a former Seattle newspaper reporter) told tales of nearby Mount St. Helens erupting in 1980. She also described the area she and husband Linc turned to vineyards as basically being a northern extension of the Willamette Valley (without the river, of course). Sadly, the winery simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It couldn’t get traction with Oregon Pinot Noir followers, nor could it attract Washington wine lovers who gravitated toward the warm Columbia Valley. It finally closed in 2006, 30 years after its first vintage.
Finding Washington Pinot Noir
Today, the largest-production Washington Pinot Noir is not labeled as such. Domaine Ste. Michelle‘s sparkling rosé uses Pinot Noir primarily from the cooler Yakima Valley. On an annual basis, winemaker Rick Casqueiro makes the equivalent of 27,000 cases of Washington Pinot Noir into beautiful bubbly.
Two of the most obvious places to look for Washington Pinot Noir are the Columbia Gorge and Puget Sound AVAs – the only Washington appellations not in the Columbia Valley. Delicious cool-climate Pinot Noir has been grown in the Gorge for decades, particularly at Celilo Vineyards.
Fewer than 100 acres of wine grapes are grown in the Puget Sound AVA, but some are Pinot Noir. Bainbridge Island Winery is occasionally able to ripen Pinot Noir, as does Hollywood Hills Vineyards in Woodinville. In the Skagit Valley town of Concrete, Challenger Ridge also makes Pinot Noir.
Some solid Washington Pinot Noir is being grown in Okanogan County just south of the Canadian border (in fact, Chateau Ste. Michelle made a small bottling of Pinot Noir from those grapes in 2006 and 2007 as part of its limited-release “Fringes” series).
A small amount of Washington Pinot Noir is grown at Evergreen Vineyard in the new Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA near the town of Quincy. Domaine Ste Michelle gets some of these grapes.
And we are seeing some delicious examples of Washington Pinot Noir from the Lake Chelan region, which tends to be fairly moderate.
A bit of Washington Pinot Noir is even grown in the eastern Walla Walla Valley, up the slopes of the lower Blue Mountains. Many years ago, Rick Small at Woodward Canyon made Pinot Noir from these grapes.
Where we don’t expect to find Washington Pinot Noir are the warm areas: Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope. Yet the folks at Ginkgo Forest Winery, one of the few wineries in the AVA, inexplicably grow Pinot Noir (Dijon clone 777) amid big reds such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – and it’s pretty darned tasty. Here’s our review:
Ginkgo Forest Winery 2008 Estate Pinot Noir, Wahluke Slope, $24
Recommended: Because of its natural ripeness, this example shows off rich purple aromas that are Syrah-like with notes of plum pie with mincemeat, along with notes of graphite, cherries and sage. On the palate, it reveals flavors of plums, raspberries, cola, spice and dried cherries. This is not a prototypical Pinot Noir, yet it is a delicious example of a warm-climate wine. (94 cases, 13.6% alc.)