It’s fall and there’s a chill in the air. And in St. Louis, it’s Red October. I don’t know about you, but I’m craving red wine.
Let’s explore red grape varietals and their wines from the U.S., from Washington State in the north to Santa Barbara in the south.
Since it lies on the east side of the Cascades, it can get very arid, with very little rainfall. Thus, irrigation plays an important role in developing the grapes. Being farther north, the state enjoys two additional hours of sunlight (compared to California), which allows for greater ripening. Full richness and big concentration can produce earthy wines, great for those big reds like cabernet sauvignon, syrah and yes, merlot (these are some of the biggest and better merlots.)
Washington also is known for its blends taking after Bordeaux. The reds often exhibit lush texture with very concentrated berry flavors reminiscent of the wild fruit found in the Pacific Northwest such as blackberries, dark cherries and boysenberries. The state is often described as combining New-World fruit with Old-World style.
In Oregon, the wineries are situated on west side of the Cascades where it gets rainfall mostly in the spring and fall. The soils, the weather and the gentle, sunny slopes in Oregon enable wine grapes to ripen slowly during the summer and fall and to develop exquisite flavors. Vintage plays a big role here. With the fall rains, when to pick is crucial. Oregon’s standout is pinot noir, which put the wine region on the global wine map.
As you travel south, the climate gets warmer and grapes more suited are grown: merlot, cabernet, syrah, etc. The Rouge Valley lies just 10 miles from California. Also in the very north, 3 AVAs straddle with Washington State: Walla Walla, Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley.
The growth of wineries in the Northwest has been huge in the last 20 years. Many an experienced Californian winemaker has moved north to plant their roots (vines). Oregon is the same latitude as Burgundy, France, and—being farther north than Napa—has generally cooler climate, which will help with acidity (what helps wine age/balance).
Mendocino/Lake County: This region is known for good quality and value. Twenty-five percent of the vineyards in Mendocino are organically farmed. The main grapes are the usual suspects: cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, as well as a smaller planting of so-called ‘Cal-Itals’ like barbera, dolcetto and nebbiolo. The quality of these Cal-Itals has gotten much better and they display a more New-World influence, though not having quite the higher acidity levels of their home-country wines.
Sonoma: Coastal influences help produce stunning pinot noir from areas like Russian River and Sonoma Coast. Farther inland is better suited to warm climate varietals such as cabernet sauvignon in Knight’s Valley, and zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley.
Napa: This a warmer region and more suited to the big, robust reds such as cabernet sauvignon. Grown up and down Napa, cabernet sauvignon shows many different nuances. The southern-end, Oakville, is influenced by San Pablo Bay, giving its cab a lush, soft quality. The northern end, in Calistoga, has more earthy notes. Napa also is known for merlot and zinfandel.
Lodi and Sierra Foothills: Heading east, going inland, it is hotter and well-suited to zinfandel (Lodi claims it is the zinfandel capital of the world), cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
Monterey: Blessed with good sunshine, coastal influences and a long growing season, Monterey produces fruit-forward, elegant pinot noir in the northern end. Toward the south of Monterey, more Bordeaux varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc find success.
Santa Barbara: Moving farther down the Central Coast, the production of pinot noir continues to prove quality. It is known, by some, as the ‘promised land’ for pinot because of the cool mornings and ideal conditions in terroir. As you get into some of the warmer areas of Santa Barbara, Rhône-style varietals such as syrah and grenache do very well. The success of these grapes in 1980 led to the association called the ‘Rhône Rangers,’ an educational group dedicated to American-grown Rhone grape varieties.
Ready for a glass of red wine? With so many great options produced here is the U.S., what better way is there to welcome fall and celebrate Red October?
Tasting Tip: Tannins are more pronounced in red wines. Where do they come from? When fermenting wine, the grape skins, stems and seeds are left in contact with the juice; and the longer this occurs, the more it extracts color and tannins. Tannins make your mouth pucker when young, but naturally allow these big reds to age.
Wine Recommendation: Pick some of your favorite reds and pair up with some of your favorite fall foods. This October is ‘Merlot Me’ month with more than 100 wineries globally celebrating the world-class nature of the noble merlot varietal. Try a merlot from Washington State!
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.