BATTLE OF THE MERLOT: OKANAGAN VS. WASHINGTON

According to Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine (7th edition) Washington is the second biggest Vitis vinifera grower and wine producer in the USA, but is responsible for less than 10% production output in comparison to California, the heavyweight in US wine production.

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Non-Estate wineries tend to source grapes from multiple growers, and blending is the name of the game, so the location of the winery does not always point to the provenance of the wines themselves. However, the trend is moving towards estate vineyards and wineries, most notably in the Yakima region - Washington state’s oldest wine growing designation.

The Wahluke Slope of northeast Washington is renowned for its dry climate and 17 hours of sunlight in peak season, factors which have popularized this region as the warmest vineyard territory in the entire state. The steep aspect of slope provides excellent exposure for the vines and provides crucial soil drainage. Wahluke Slope extends from the Saddle Mountains in the north to the Columbia River and maintains a southward exposure that maximizes sunlight radiation in the summer. Interestingly, this exposure also assists in draining cold air away from the vines in the winter months when bitingly cold winds can result in critical vine loss. All these factors have led to Syrah and Merlot to become the dominant plantings in the region, followed closely by Cabernet Sauvignon, Reisling and Chardonnay.  

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Charles Smith Wines is located in the heart of Wahluke, in an area known as Mattawa. This winery is not traditional in any sense of the word and displays a loud and proud rockstar, zero-f*cks-given attitude. Founder Charles Smith is described as a Napa Valley native that did not develop an appreciation for wine until travelling to Europe as a band manager for the Raveonettes. Since beginning his endeavour into wine, Charles has been recognized by numerous accolades including Wine & Spirits Magazine’s “Best New Wineries of the Last Ten Years” in 2008, Food & Wine Magazine's 2009 “Winemaker of the Year,” and Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 “Winemaker of the Year.”

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However, awards and recognition is one thing - backing it up with a fantastic product is another. The 2015 Velvet Devil Merlot from Charles Smith was an interesting wine. It displayed classic merlot characteristics: a soft, subtle body, low tannins, with sumptuous spice and black fruit aromas. The sip revealed a dark, brooding wine - real deep, like Morrison’s Velvet Underground. This is a wine you’d most likely meet in a dark alleyway, late at night, behind the clubs still throbbing with bass and packed to the brim with lonely hearts. 

Second glass in, I felt like I had brought home a one night stand. Naked between the sheets, I revelled in the thought that one bottle is not a lifetime commitment - rather it is simply a taste of the reality that a winemaker has to live with every day. Not to say that I didn’t have a good time with this Merlot, I just didn’t find myself wanted to call it the next day and set up that second date if you catch my drift. The allure and suggestibility brought about by strategic branding had been replaced by feelings of boredom induced by repeated exposure to a one-trick pony. Sorry Charlie, but I just didn’t want to put a ring on it.

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But perhaps I am just an Okanagan girl with a penchant for the familiar, the taste of home. The Tinhorn Creek 2014 Merlot did just that, it transported me to a warm and familiar place. A full-bodied red elevated by the warmth of vanilla wood spice from 18 months in French oak, this wine had me melting into my most beloved armchair. Bright notes of cherry, liquorice and white pepper presented themselves upfront while hints of sage and sweet tobacco lingered in the background, adding complexity to this well-structured wine. Made from grapes sourced from the Golden Mile Bench, this region is defined by its elevation on the western half of the valley along with a south-facing exposure that soaks up cooler morning rays, leaving the intense afternoon sun to the Black Sage Bench located on the east side of the valley.   

This wine kept me coming back for more. A rich, lush mouthfeel was complemented by the structure provided by medium tannin levels - the foundations of a symphonic harmony achieved between aroma, texture, and taste. It was a comfort on a cold, blustery day - the summer thunderheads billowing up above, the patter of rain outside and the rush of the cool, mineral breeze through the open window, the scene framed by the comforting hug of this most divine liquid inspiration. If the Velvet Devil was a one night stand, this was a marriage to last a lifetime. Bathed in the afterglow of a half-finished bottle, I delighted in the idea of continuing the conversation with this tantalizing vintage - of sharing a home and a life - but, alas, I am getting far too involved already.   

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While it is certainly most unfair to judge any region based on the comparison of two wines, it represents an interesting exploration into the nuances of climatic circumstances. Despite the fact that both Washington and B.C. are located in the west coast of North America, the areas of Wahluke slope and the Golden Mile Bench remain distinct and defined by the unique regional terroirs and winemaking techniques. And, while Okanagan may have won my heart this time around there is always room for re-evaluation! 

What’s the BEST Merlot you’ve ever experienced? Babbling Bottles wants to know! Share your stories in the comments section and let’s all get down to babbling about the bottles that enrich our lives and warm our souls.

Until next time,

Cheers!

XO Babbling Bottles

Sources for this Article:

Information on the Wahluke Slope

Golden Mile Bench Information