Wildhaven Columbia Valley Merlot 2015

Ah, merlot, the much derided fruit.

Interesting how that pop culture reference put this grape into the spotlight, in a derisive way not fitting the truth. The truth is that worldwide, merlot is the number 2 planted grape, behind only cabernet sauvignon and ahead of airen, that unknown man of Spain. Importantly in France, merlot is the number one planted grape.

A couple of other points about merlot. First, it’s able to morph in character a lot depending upon where it’s grown. Second, it’s great paired with a big variety of food, with the exception of spicy numbers; they tend to overwhelm merlot’s lower acidity and tannins.

Which brings us to this glass from Washington. The immediate impression is of a hot blueberry pie, crust and all. We can translate that into hot blue fruit and baking spices, which is an enormously good start, don’t you think? That tells us that the grapes were grown in a hot climate, which isn’t quite what we generally think of when we think of the Pacific Northwest…and you’d be wrong. Remember that Washington has two big distinct climates; the damp maritime west of the Cascades, and the dry continental east of them.

So there’s that hot blueberry pie nose, a delicious low-key fruit palate and nice chalky tannin finish. What’s not to like? Fab with non-spiced food and by itself.

$12.49

Oak Grove Family Reserve Merlot 2013

The theme for Oak Grove wines is quality, accessible wines of good (to great) value.

This merlot is no exception. Well made but low key, a glass of the OG will please a lot of palates.

Blueberry and blackberry fruits, baking spices and mild acids make this a complete party wine. She’s actually rather delicate, which is fine, with a touch of sweetness towards the finish.

$8.99

Bridgman Syrah 2012

People think about Washington state wines in the wrong way. They imagine grapes grown alongside Puget Sound, or on the slopes of Mt Rainier.

In the rainshadow of the Cascades, people, that’s where grapes grow. They like to keep their feet dry, and like only as much water as life requires. The other side of the mountains, apart from having all the people has all the water, too.

But there is a distinct set of environments in all of the sub-regions of WA, which makes for interesting wines. This Bridgman Syrah (notably using the French vernacular) is clearly made in the style of the home country. It’s almost fruitless – obviously hyperbolic, but you get my drift – and relatively dry, which is an interesting combination. I see the word textured used a bit, and this is just so.

Cola, smoke, bushfire, tart cough syrup, cooking spices, and something I can’t quite nail down are all here, in the nose at least. They yield to a nice acid attack, with some ginger root, cardomom and intriguing mouth feel.

This wine made me wonder a bit, about what the winemaker had in mind. The fact that he or she created something nuanced and mysterious is sufficient. More than than we cannot ask.

$15.99

 

River Road Chardonnay 2015

It’s not so much in the middle of the road as travelling down the Interstate in the slow lane at medium pace.

Maybe I’m working too hard to keep this wine in the game, but I really don’t need to. There’s no malo in evidence, lots of interesting fruit and the lightest of light touches with whatever oak the winemaker decided to use.

Clearly there’s a mix of fruit used, because the notes cover the range between Granny Smith Apple juice and lemon juice. I think that’s what I’m hunting for, the idea that we’re covering all the taste bases here without really making any one outstanding.

Resolutely the best wine to be made with this fruit and at this cost in California. There, that’s praise without judgement, another metaphor for California. But like everything in California, one has the suspicion that we’ve been overcharged, and that we didn’t ever quite get value for money.

$14.99

Dominican Oaks Unoaked Chardonnay 2016

Thank goodness! After a couple of oaked chardonnays, a crisp, clean bottle of wine.

I’m quizzical about people’s taste in this area. Is it preferable to drink the same thing all the time, viz: wooded, vanilla, manipulated, fat chardonnay? Sure, there are some fabulous iterations of that theme, but the highlight of wine to me is variation and the questions each glass raises.

But that’s me. A lot of people like the comfort of met expectation. It’s the McDonaldsization of wine, wherein consumers get precisely the same product every “experience” no matter where you are, the time of day or, in our case, the vintage.

Which is why this wine makes me so happy. We talk and read a lot about refreshing wines, but this really is such a thing. Clearly made from ripe fruit, well treated, this is a clean glass that creates just the right amount of spark.

Tree fruits, green apple flesh, acacia, lemon zest, fruit compote on the nose lead seamlessly to lemon juice, citrus pith, just-ripe summer fruit and a touch of mineral tartness on the palate. Short, well managed finish of fruit (sugar) and acid.

What more anyone could want from the idea of a stainless chardonnay at the price I don’t know. Very good.

$10.99

Gumdale Chardonnay

It must be either a fruit characteristic, a fermentation characteristic, a winemaking characteristic or a wood characteristic, but why are these cheap Australian chardonnays so golden? They all look like one’s piss on a hot day…which might be more of a clue than we think.

Yep, almost overripe fruit on the nose, not so much tropical as just plain fresh pineapple. Then there is the taste, which is not subtle. Let’s call it a workmanlike stab at a bulk chardonnay-based table wine with some evidence of oak.

A top note of wood cellulose and butter is meant to be the oak and associated flavours, but it comes across more as “oak” and cellulose, leading to the inevitable questions about what kind, and in what form this wine was introduced to oak. My suspicion is oak staves and/or oak chips. Neither is abominable in a wine of this pedigree, but it is noticeable.

This glass is essentially a full step above the Bin 65 Lindemans of this world. Four extra dollars buys you one more layer of complexity, a recognizable butter character and a somewhat more reliable backbone of fruit and acid.

It’s okay…let’s call it OK minus, and fine with food.

$8.29

Lucky Goat Chardonnay 2014

Whatever the nose is, I’m intrigued.

Is it guava? Lychee? Durian with the volume turned down?

In part this is why South American wines intrigue me so much; there’s no telling what will come pouring out of the bottle.

Whatever that nose emulates, it doesn’t follow through to the palate, which is possibly even a small disappointment, because if it did, we might have discovered an entirely new sub-branch of chardonnay wine-making.

As it is, the palate is just fine.

This is no juicy chardonnay, it’s way more earthy than that. There’s a certain solidity to the fruit, a kind of yeoman quality that stands unmoved by what it should taste like.

One wonders at the winemakers in Chile. Here they have carefully tended fruit that is unlike that from anywhere else in the world, and they have to make the wine for sale. Of course they understand how Burgundy works, naturally they know California. They also know Australia and Washington. What to do? The bravest make stuff that the fruit tells them to; in keeping with the grapes, weather, people trilogy. Others will move along the emulation line, but these are thankfully few.

It’s embarrassing listening to wine salesmen deride wines like this. Yes, it’s low price, but no, it’s not low quality. If the thinking drinker’s logic is that the best wines ask more questions than they answer, this is a wine to consider.

$7.99

Porta Chardonnay 2014

Unoaked, the less expensive sister of the Porta Reserva Chardonnay, a winner.

Beautiful honey-gold colour, she looks to be light-bodied. Call it medium minus. No gas or solids, the meniscus moves to the lightest of yellows, starbright.

On the nose, she’s inviting and relatively rich. Light-weight tropical fruits are the first to make an appearance; pineapple, guava, green apricot and some citrus.

In the mouth, those flavours are replaced with an acidic element that’s kind of overpowering. Lemon juice and orange pith, not an altogether harmonious combination.

Herein the dilemma of the unoaked chardonnay. If the fruit and fermentation can’t make a product worth drinking, is there a reason to keep making it? Key here is that the fruit element of this wine is…missing. It’s almost like the grapes are a vehicle for the products that come from the winemaking process; wine, alcohol and something to sell.

It’s not like there isn’t an audience for a wine like this, because there must be. What’s worth considering is the ancient idea that wine is a way to preserve grapes and the essence of them. In other words, if a wine doesn’t echo the fruit on the vine, is there a good reason to make it?

As is the wont of wines like this, oxygen helps. As the available molecules add O, their nature changes, as does the wine. Food, too, of course, pushes back on the idea of wine as aperitif towards wine as a complement. This one definitely improves with food, and could deal with heavy dishes…and might even be a super accompaniment

The question of pairings is at stake here. Because of the way this wine is made, and the nature of the grape the standard equation of chardonnay + X = satisfaction fails to solve for X.

The calculation should ready be acidic light-bodies grape product + X = satisfaction. That’s a different thing entirely.

Tart fruits, which means apricot skin, unripe pineapple and…just try it.

$8.49

Rubus Shiraz 2014

This is more like it.

Here we have a relative of that most sainted of Aussie icons, Hill of Grace. I once drank HoG as a matter of some regularity, before someone in China decided it was worth owning.

The same juicy fruit, that ripe muscularity, the lean extraction of flavor from old vines and ancient soils are everywhere evident in the glass. A sip of this is the grapes and the vines giving their all in the service of proving that Barossa grapes are as good as those found anywhere; sweet, dry, fruity, complex, layered and plain intoxicating.

Ripe blackberry juice, sweet blueberries, cocoa powder and a hint of spice combine in a completely satisfying mouthful. Clean and balanced acids balance it all out. I’m sure fabulous food pairings exist, but I don’t know why you’d bother. Just sit and adore the wine by itself.

$19.99

HXM Inspiration Riesling

And here we have a wine in a bedazzled bottle. What can this tell us about the contents? One wonders who imagines and then implements such things; who exactly do they think the consumers are?

Interestingly, this smells much like the Vouvray from recent history. That coleslaw dressing aroma is unmistakable. Sheep’s milk, cream, the acid of the cabbage; it’s really distinctive.

And yet here we end up in the satisfying riesling world of fruit, juice, grape and alcohol, which is an altogether happy place to be.

So just what is that nose? Mustiness is one part of it. Earthiness is another. Perhaps what’s happening here is the interplay between the fruit and the minerals in the soil…through which the medium is livestock. it’s not unpleasant in the least, merely…agricultural.

The riesling might be the last vestige of grape in a bottle. Here we have that delicious sweet and acid combo, plus that pool-toy new tennis-ball combo AND hints of sultanas, raisins, dried grapes, candied fruits and sulfur. Fruit, in short, in a bottle. And here here we are at the…what is this? what pricepoint?

$9.99