Where's the value? Washington wines stack up

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Wine marketers are quite happy to point out that the number of wineries in this state is now nearly 700. But behind that statistic lies a less flashy truth. Only a couple dozen Washington brands have a significant national presence. Those brands -- often inexpensive, big-production wines -- carry the region's quality message to the world.

How do they stack up?

By some standards, very well. Several popular wine magazines (including Wine Enthusiast, for which I write) publish end-of-the-year, "best buy'' lists. By percentage, based on the state's low total production, Washington has more value wines than any region in the world.

But do those wines taste good? Are they representative of this state's finest -- not their equal but identifiably their stable mates? For a quick check I looked at current releases of inexpensive wines in three important varietal categories: riesling, pinot gris/grigio and merlot.

Washington is this country's largest riesling producer, and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates claims to be the largest riesling producer in the world. Riesling is just second to chardonnay as Washington's most-grown grape, representing more than 20 percent of the total production.

Pinot gris/grigio is a distant third, but acreage has tripled in the past three years. Merlot is close behind cabernet sauvignon as the most-grown red grape.

I think riesling is Washington's best value white wine; I could fill this column just listing the top producers. As we head into fall, remember that nicely chilled riesling is not just a summer wine. It's a good match for turkey and spicy Asian dishes, and when sealed with a screw cap, it's taint-proof.

Recommended riesling

Columbia Crest Two Vines 2009 Riesling ($7). Off-dry, low alcohol (11.5 percent), full-bodied and ripe, with vivid peach and apricot flavors.

Ch. Ste. Michelle 2009 Riesling ($7). Lime, Asian pear, cucumber and apple flavors, lightly sweet. Also good (and slightly sweeter):

Ch. Ste. Michelle 2009 Harvest Select Riesling ($7).

Willow Crest 2009 Riesling ($10). Intense and thrillingly Germanic at 8.5 percent alcohol and 5.5 percent residual sugar. Spicy pear and tart tangerine fruit; penetrating, dense and highly refreshing.

Snoqualmie 2009 Naked Riesling ($10). Made with organically grown grapes, this soft, forward, fruity wine is ready right now. Also good:

Snoqualmie 2009 Winemaker's Select Riesling ($10).

Recommended pinot gris/grigio

This is a less successful category than riesling, perhaps because most vines are quite young, and also because Oregon pinot gris is so well-established and sets a high standard. Still, this grape has a bright future in Washington, making wines less fleshy, more vivid than the Oregon style, as these three show:

Hyatt Vineyards 2008 Pinot Gris ($9). Firm and full of fresh pear, apple and white-peach fruit flavors. The clever blend includes muscat, viognier and riesling.

Willow Crest 2009 Pinot Gris ($10). Estate-grown, with vivid, juicy, pear and apple flavors. Racy and tightly defined, this really sets the standard for Washington pinot gris.

Columbia Crest 2009 H3 Pinot Gris ($15). A touch of vanilla enlivens the aroma. Spicy and fresh, with a mix of grapefruit and pineapple.

Recommended merlot

Columbia Crest Two Vines 2008 Merlot ($7). A core of berry fruits and a finish lined with vanilla and tobacco.

Pine & Post 2007 Merlot ($8). Fruit forward, with sweet candy flavors of berry and black cherry.

Eliseo Silva 2007 Merlot ($10). Soft and easy-drinking, now at its peak, with generous fruit and a chocolaty finish.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2007 Merlot ($10). Seamless, smoky, supple and seductive, with exotic sandalwood and Asian spices wrapped around black cherry and blackberry fruit.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.



Pick of the week

Columbia Crest Two Vines 2008 Vineyard 10 Red Wine; $7

Hey, it's 10/10/10! So here's a Vineyard 10 to mark the occasion. A mongrel blend of syrah, sangiovese, grenache and cabernet franc, this fruity red has a sweet core of blueberry jam, dusted with baking spices.

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