The Friday Fermentable: Wines of the Pacific Northwest by Erleichda

Our dear colleague, Erleichda, is back with another wine dinner experience. For those new to the blog, Erleichda is my slightly-senior colleague from whom I have learned a great deal about life and science. Recently retired from the discovery and development of life-saving anticancer drugs, he posts routinely on the escapades of his travels and wine dinners with his friends, known by the name "Jim's Disciples" to acknowledge their recently departed founder. This is an older column that I missed posting awhile back so here it is for your enjoyment.

Another Wine Experience: Dinner Paired with Wines of the Pacific Northwest
by Erleichda

Jim's Disciples tried a new approach to their monthly, or thereabouts, wine tasting dinners. Rather than the usual selection of a wine theme and attendance at a nearby restaurant, this particular Spring night we did something different. The restaurateur of a somewhat new BYOB establishment suggested wines of the Pacific Northwest (if that would be an acceptable focus to us) would make an interesting match for her husband's cooking. For each course of her proposed menu she suggested a type of wine we could find from Oregon or Washington (or British Columbia). Each of us was then assigned one of the recommended varietals or theme topics as the basis for our wine purchase, with the intention that it would serve as the perfect accompaniment for the food course for which it had been chosen. Our selections made, we awaited the evening with great anticipation.

It was a dark and stormy night, but inside the restaurant the many glasses for the multitude of wines were twinkling and tinkling. Greetings all around, a congrats to the new grandpa amongst us, and all the bottles were opened and set aside as we settled in for an amuse bouche. A small dollop of smoked salmon canape on 7-grain toast went so nice with the Argyle 2002 Brut Cuvee Willamette Valley, Oregon sparkling wine (ca. $30), or was it the other way around? But I was hungry at this point and wished these temptations set before us were more plentiful. I found the wine, composed of 75% chardonnay and 25% pinot noir, to be a pleasant mixture of perfumed citrusy olfactory sensations, and toasty pear flavors on the tongue, along with good minerality. My tasting and smelling senses were still sharp at this point, but that would change. Others around the table mentioned tasting apple in this "fresh and dry" offering, and that the sparkling wine was "limestone mineraly" for a "not very dry brut", as well as "light and citrusy". Another nice beginning.

The meal began in earnest with the appearance of a pan seared crabcake with aioli sauce and a white bean relish. Two pinot gris wines had been selected to accompany this appetizer. The 2006 Lange Pinot Gris ($17) from Oregon's Willamette Valley had a clean nose and tasted crisp to me with a very light viscosity. Two people said they tasted peach; I did not. I thought this wine went well on its own whereas the next wine did better when had with food. The second pinot gris, a 2006 Lachini, was from North Willamette Valley (available for $18, though I paid more). It was lighter and thinner than the first wine and tasted somewhat more acidic. Hence it did better with food, and this opinion was seconded by a few others, but not all participants. A few noted an after taste, or a strange odor, or a raisin taste.

Two chardonnay, or chardonnay-containing wines, were poured next to accompany the seared ultra fresh scallops with (my favorite food item of the evening) a puree of sweet potato and butternut squash, plus sautéed spinach (one could substitute Swiss chard) in mustard cream. The 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery (Canoe Ridge Estate, Horse Heaven Hills) chardonnay ($22) (not just any Ste. Michelle chardonnay) was far too oaky for me on its own, both in smell and taste, and most definitely required food, in my judgment. This sentiment appeared almost verbatim on the several tasting note pages I reviewed. In contrast, the 2005 Hedges CMS ($17, although available in some places for as little as $11), containing one-third chardonnay, nearly two-thirds sauvignon blanc, and a smidgeon (3%) of marsanne, was the preferred wine of the two. It was characterized as "light, refreshing, with a hint of apple", "nice, creamy, minerals". Advertised as having melon, grapefruit and nectarine aromas, I detected nothing. But I felt, as did at least one other, that this wine did not do as well with food as when tasted on its own. I thought it would do well with just some cheese and olives, and should certainly be tried by those who live (CA, NY, CT, FL) where the less expensive pricing is available.

We were about to move away from white wines and for the next course two pinot noirs awaited us. The sixth wine of the evening was a 2005 Argyle Pinot Noir Reserve from Oregon's Willamette Valley (~$35). My notes say cherry gumdrops, wonderful fruit, soft and nice with exclamation points. Tasting notes from around the table describe this 14% alcohol wine as "nice, smooth", "fruit, vanilla, smooth", "great nose, dry, ideal pinot". It paired extremely well with the braised and roasted pork belly (tasty, but too fatty for me), and spice rubbed pork tenderloin (much better), plus red wine simmered cabbage and French green beans and kumquat compote. An even higher alcohol content was found in the other pinot noir, a 2006 Sineann Phelps Creek Vineyard, Willamette Valley ($ 40-50). A hint of barnyard on the nose, like a Burgundian pinot noir, and peppery on the palate. This is a big wine with black fruit flavors, softening in the glass over time- very flavorful. Others had it characterized as "more restrained" (than the Argyle), "barnyard", "more tannic and peppery", "austere", and several said "best with food".

As if we hadn't had enough to eat, along came the slow braised farm-raised (Kobe-style) short ribs with a potato and celery root roesti, sautéed spinach and baby carrots. And to pair with this sumptuous course we had been asked to bring along two cabernet sauvignons. Wine number 8 was a wine some of us had experienced at a separate outing a year earlier. The 2001 Dussek Woodhouse Family Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, from Red Mountain, Washington ($45) was to win my heart again. It has a great nose (intoxicating several inches from the glass) and taste which together provides a symphony, an amazing experience. It needs to breathe a bit before tasting the fruit (cherry notes) and light oak combination that comes together so well in this wine. Others described it as "excellent", "extraordinary aroma", "rich", "plumy", "well balanced". The other selection sharing the spotlight was a 2003 Cougar Crest Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla-Walla Washington ($35). Perhaps a bit too syrupy, I found this wine to have a cherry-Pertussin-like taste to it, but not unpleasant. It just didn't amount to a $35 wine to me. Others wrote "sweet, but good", "cherry", "bold and tannic", "dry and austere". I don't think this selection was the winner of the evening.

I couldn't finish all my short ribs, so the prospect of eating much of my white chocolate with raspberry bread pudding plus the chocolate hazelnut mousse with ganache and cocoa sauce was over the top. And to accompany this fine dessert was a 2005 St. Michelle Late Harvest Chenin Blanc ($25 for a half bottle). I felt the wine was too cloying, with an over abundance of honey notes both on the nose and palate. Others remarked: "nothing remarkable"; "nice honey flavor"; and "great, peaches". I concluded the meal with a double espresso.

Upon requesting a vote around the table of everyone's favorite white wine, the Hedges CMS easily won this honor, with two votes cast for the Argyle sparkling wine. Of the red wines, the Dussek cabernet sauvignon garnered eight first place votes, with the second place finish assigned to the Argyle pinot noir, and the Sineann pinot noir a close third.

A favorite Pacific Northwest wine? Let's hear about it.

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