Tastings: Washingtonian lunch

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Just as in northern California, the number of wineries in Washington state has been growing at a fast clip. Recently I opened two bottles from a winery that's relatively new but has deep roots in the Washington wine establishment.

The occasion was a ladies' luncheon of poached salmon, roasted asparagus and a wild rice salad with dried cranberries, dressed in orange juice and sesame oil -- a menu that made the wine selection more tricky than usual.

Salmon is dead simple. Normally I would serve it with a medium-bodied chardonnay, but chardonnay and asparagus are mortal enemies. A light pinot noir can brighten almost any salmon preparation and would have been another choice were it not for the asparagus. The tannins in even light red wines tend to become frightfully aggressive and the fruit in the wine disappears in the company of those fresh green stalks.

Sauvignon blanc is a top choice to pair with vegetables such as asparagus so it was one of the selections. The other was an off-dry riesling. Both bottles were from Mercer Estates in Prosser, Wash.

Mercer Estates, created in 2006, is a partnership of the Mercer and Hogue families, both pioneers in Washington's grape growing and winemaking. Mike Hogue was a founder of Hogue Winery in 1982 when there were only 19 wineries in the state (today there are more than 600). The winery had a great following thanks to a lineup of exceptionally well-made wines that sold at reasonable prices. I frequently recommended Hogue wines to friends who asked what wine they should order in a restaurant to be assured of getting something everyone would enjoy. Hogue never disappointed.

But the winery was sold to a large wine company in 2001 and then absorbed by an even larger one in '06 and today it produces 600,000 cases of wine.

Partner Bud Mercer planted his first vineyards in the area in 1972 but sold his grapes to wineries as did many other farmers at the time. The history of both these families in the Yakima Valley goes back three generations. Joining them at Mercer Estate is David Forsyth, the winemaker at Hogue for 23 years.

The sauvignon blanc, with layers of green apple, pear and grapefruit aromas, has the typical varietal grassy and herbal notes. A sturdy foundation of acidity made it work well with both the salmon and asparagus. Forty percent of the grapes were fermented and aged in new American oak barrels for five months, which shows in the structure and body of the wine. This wine worked well with the menu while staying within the boundaries of tradition. It was a fine choice but it somehow lacked the imagination and drama I was hoping for.

The riesling, on the other hand, brought theatricality to the meal. It intensified all of the food flavors and added new dimensions to what was on the plate. The slate-like minerality complemented the asparagus. Fruit aromas such as apricot and tangerine were perfectly suited to the orange and cranberry flavors in the wild rice, and the balanced finish between a slight sweetness and racy acidity gave the salmon a zing it didn't have with the sauvignon blanc. And the piece de resistance was the riesling with our dessert -- a compote of fresh berries with lemon mousse. That was a marriage made in heaven!

Washington is the second-largest producing state in the country after California. There are 36,000-plus acres planted in wine varietals and wineries there are making premium wines to rival the world's best. Look around your wine store on your next visit and pick up a few bottles.

Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

PLCB #17590, $16.49

Mercer Estates Yakima Valley Riesling, 2007

PLCB #18138, $16.49


Elizabeth Downer: edowner@post-gazette.com .


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