On Election Day, I tasted 21 sparkling wines, and none included a toast to the victor of this or the defeat of that. While others were going to the polls, I joined other judges at the Grand Harvest Awards on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.
This is a small competition - about 1,000 entries - but the Grand Harvest Awards, which draws wines from throughout the world, is believed to be the first to organize classes not only by varietal or style of wine but by place of origin. Since the start in 1990, the intent has been both to award medals to the best of the entries and to determine the similarities they share by virtue of where their fruit was grown. For example, just what do the pinot noirs of Russian River Valley have in common and how do they differ in that respect from, say, the pinot noirs of Anderson Valley? With a few exceptions, wines of a type are grouped by their terroir - where their grapes were cultivated.
Frankly, I haven't kept up to speed on the conclusions that the competition has drawn about terroir's influence on wine styles and expressions. First, "terroir" means different things to different people, with no consistent and satisfactory definition yet to evolve. Secondly, experience has taught me that the link between farming environment and what wines of a defined area have in common is elusive and shifty, but that's a topic for another day.
The 21 sparkling wines our panel pondered will shed little light on the role of terroir. This was one of those classes where the entries could have been from anywhere, and a couple tasted as if that might not even have been from this planet. We weren't told their place of origin. At any rate, we gave three of them gold medals, and with the year-end holidays approaching I look forward to learning the competition's results, which are to be released in another week or so.
On the other hand, our biggest single class of wines - 72 - was based on appellation. All were from Washington state's Columbia Valley, an expansive and diversified area I've come to associate largely with fine riesling, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, most of which tend to share balance, ready accessibility and a clear representation of varietal. To give an idea of the size and range of the appellation, however, we also tasted barbera, zinfandel, grenache, malbec and sangiovese from Columbia Valley, among other varietals.
Based on the 72, I'd have to say that cabernet sauvignon and blends based on cabernet sauvignon is what Columbia Valley has done best by in recent vintages. Of the 10 cabernet sauvignons we tasted, six got a silver medal and one got gold (and in my opinion two others also should have won gold). Broadly speaking, the cabernets were juicy, bright, direct and ready to drink, with tannins more supple than steely. If they lacked complexity I suspect it was because they were primarily examples carrying everyday prices, not the more expensive interpretations coming out of the region, though the wines weren't grouped by price. We'll see come mid-month.
Merlot and syrah also were impressive. On the other hand, if I were farming cabernet franc, zinfandel and malbec in Columbia Valley I'd seriously be thinking of grafting it to one of the more promising varieties. For the most part, the entries we tasted were a surprising letdown, generally coming off green or overripe and lacking varietal markers. Of course, the Grand Awards might not have attracted the best examples that the region is capable of yielding, but 72 should be enough to provide a snapshot of how some varieties are doing in the area and how others might be happier in a home elsewhere.