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Blending adds yet another dimension to Northwest wines

Below, Northstar winemaker, David Merfeld and at left, Northstar grapes in the vineyard.   - Contributed Photo
Below, Northstar winemaker, David Merfeld and at left, Northstar grapes in the vineyard.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

In March, I attended the 17th Annual Taste of Washington at Century Link. It is the largest regional wine tasting in the United States, and I have attended every one — from way back in 1997 when it was held in the Paramount Theatre with the chairs were removed.  Prior to that, I was a card-carrying member of the Northwest Enological Society when tastings were under the Seattle Center’s Pacific Science Center arches and there were so few Northwest wines that Korbel and other California wines were included to fill in the gaps!

The current format of Taste Washington is two days of identical tastings preceded by seminars in the morning.  There are four seminars from which to choose each day.  The seminars are for those wine enthusiasts who want more in-depth knowledge.  Last year I attended one seminar which discussed one vineyard…its location, its dirt composition, which grapes grow best on the west-facing slope vs. the south-facing slope, its rainfall, its wind direction, etc. The vineyard manager then explained how various rows are trellised, canopied and pruned to the instructions of the various winery customers.

This year I chose blending with North Star Winery from Walla Walla.  I have attended various blending events: two at Januik in Woodinville, one at Hogue Cellars in Prosser, one at Conn Creek in Napa and one at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma.

All in all, blending is a humbling experience.  The wine maker presents the same wines which he uses. Attendees are presented with a graduated cylinder and pipette.  The assignment is to approximate the flavor of the winemaker’s wine by tasting the various blending wines.

At the Taste Washington seminar, Northstar’s Winemaker David Merfeld led the blending experience.  We were presented with four merlots from four different appellations: Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain.  The one cabernet sauvignon was from Walla Walla Valley and the one petit verdot was from Wahluke Slope. All were from the 2012 vintage. We had Northstar 2010 Columbia Valley merlot as our prototype.

Winemaker Merfeld likened our blending to cooking in the kitchen.  You taste the various ingredients and then put them together for a final dish.  We were given a booklet which described the growing regions of the four merlot regions: hot or warm days, cool nights, soil composition, rainfall.  His “spice rack” is made up of cabernet sauvignon for roundness and brightness, petit verdot for color and structure, and cabernet franc for softness.

As usual, when I am presented with several wines for blending, graduated cylinders, and pipettes, I am initially daunted.  And as other participants at the table ask for more of a certain wine or talk about their perceptions, I begin to doubt my own observations!  Then, I block out the noise and focus on my own blend.

The most important thing to remember is a wine cannot be labeled a varietal like “merlot” unless it is at least 75% merlot.  However, we had four merlots for blending!  While the minimum amount is 75%, the resulting wine could be 100% merlot.  Then, we were also presented with the additional cabernet and petit verdot.

At blending seminars, I am reminded of the talent of the winemaker.  While grape and vineyard selection are part of his job, the ability to blend is a fundamental skill.

Reservations for a blending seminar can be made at Northstar Winery in Walla Walla.  Participants also design a label and take home a bottle of their own blend.  Call 866-486-7828 or email at info@northstarwinery.com.  Additionally Northstar Winery is a destination in itself with a commanding view of the Walla Walla Valley with a gorgeous patio.  It has a comfy “living room” tasting room for unfavorable weather.  Open seven days a week.

While Northstar does produce a cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, syrah, malbec, white blend and red blend, it is recognized for its merlot.  Its two main merlots are Columbia Valley and Walla Walla.  My favorite is Walla Walla.

Dee Hitch can be reached at rockypointlane@aol.com.

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