It's not easy being a French wine lover east of the Cascades. In the heart of Washington wine country, restaurants, bars, and stores not surprisingly stock mostly Washington vino.
That’s why east side of the mountains Francophiles like me are grateful to Hans Giner, of Bellevue-based Chateau St. Martin, and Jim Collins, of the Cascade Wine Co. in Yakima, for their continuing efforts to haul excellent, well-priced French juice over the mountains to slake our palates. Giner is one of the state’s top importers and distributors of French and other European wines, while Collins’ shop in downtown Yakima is the lone outpost of extensive, well-selected international wines in Eastern and Central Washington.
A recent presentation from Giner’s exclusive portfolio of small French producers, held at Collins’ cozy storefront, was one of the best tastings I’ve ever experienced. With two exceptions, the 11 wines poured were not expensive by Washington and Oregon standards for the quality, ranging from $18.99 to $34.99. But the exceptions were exceptional. The 2006 Croix de Labrie, made by “garagiste” upstart Michel Puzio in the St. Emilion region of Bordeaux, is considered by wine critic Robert Parker and others one of the best Merlots in the world. With its smoky, coffee notes, many of us wouldn’t even recognize it as Merlot. It was fascinating. I just wish I could afford $100 a bottle.
But what Giner and Collins want people to realize is that you can generally get more for your money drinking French compared with Washington, Oregon, and California, particularly if you are passionate about pairing wine and food. “It’s a huge misconception that French wines are expensive,” said Giner, 71, a Swedish-born former telecommunications executive who followed his passion and started importing and distributing wine six years ago. “For a bottle of equivalent quality from a domestic source, you have to pay two to three times what you pay for a French bottle.”
That value for quality was clear from tasting the 2008 Albert Bichot Chardonnay from the Pouilly Fuisse region of Burgundy ($19.99), the 2005 Sirius Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot ($18.99), and the 2006 Chateau du Cedre Malbec from the Cahors region ($22.99). All three were wonderfully true to the character of their grape varietal. And unlike too many U.S. wines, the fruit was restrained enough, and the acidity firm enough, to make them fine food wines. The Chateau du Cedre was perhaps the best example I’ve ever tasted of the black, tarry wines from the southwest region of Cahors, which aren’t produced in large quantities and aren’t commonly found in the U.S.
Moving up a little in price, the 2009 Couly-Dutheil Les Chanteaux Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, ($26.99), the 2005 Bel-Air La Royere Merlot-Malbec blend from Bordeaux ($24.99), and the 2005 Chateau Branda Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend from Bordeaux ($27.99) displayed even greater complexity. The Loire wine showed the tangy, minerally qualities the under-appreciated chenin blanc grape is capable of — and what Washington is losing by pulling out a large portion of its chenin blanc acreage. And the two Merlot blends from the right bank of Bordeaux proved what fine, firm structure and balance Merlot can achieve, in contrast to the flabby character of too many California Merlots.
No wine tasting is complete without dessert, and Giner and Collins delivered. The sweet 2005 Chateau Haut-Theulet blend of Semillon, Muscadelle, and Sauvignon Blanc ($29.99 for a 500 milliliter bottle) was the best I’ve ever tasted from the famed Monbazillac dessert wine region. Like a good Sauternes, it was honeyed and nutty without being cloying.
Giner and Collins say that while there are some Washington wines they enjoy, they wish more of our state’s growers and winemakers would come to events like this to taste and learn. (Some do, and it shows. James Mantone of Syncline Wine Cellars says he regularly gets together with other winemakers to sip vino from around the world). Giner stresses that French wines generally have lower alcohol, a better balance between fruit, tannins, and acidity, and less oak (which is often used to disguise flaws in a wine). In contrast, Washington wines can be oaky, alcoholic monsters, weighing in at or above 15 percent alcohol.
“Higher alcohol takes away the profile, characteristics and structure of the wine,” Giner laments. “It means the wine is leaving its traditional role of pairing with food to become a cocktail.”
If you want to taste the difference, Chateau St. Martin does French and international wine tastings and dinners at West Side venues every weekend, plus monthly tastings at the Columbia Tower Club in Seattle. For more information, Giner’s Web site is at http://www.chstmartin.com.
And if you’re making a wine pilgrimage to the Yakima Valley, stop in at the Cascade Wine Co. Tuesday through Saturday for daily tastings, plus special tastings on Friday and Saturday. The Web site is at http://www.cascadewinecompany.com.