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Through the grapevine



Courtesy of Sokol Blosser

Wine buffs are buzzing about the Northwest' pinot noirs. Matt Wilce hits the bottle with Oregon winemaker Alex Sokol Blosser for an inside take on this burgeoning region.

Think New World wines, and Californian sauvignons, Australian chardonnays and Chilean reds spring to mind, but across the globe neophyte vintners have been gaining ground over the last few decades to woo buffs away from the old boys. The US's Northwest is one such region. In the last century and a half, the area has steadily built a strong following among American consumers with competitive wines. Keen to open Japan's eyes to a New World of wines, the Northwest Wine Coalition recently came to town to show off the best of the area's winemakers. Popular wineries such as Chateau Ste Michelle, Covey Run and Pepper Bridge introduced a fresh crop of vintages to Japanese connoisseurs as part of their world tour designed to boost Oregon, Idaho and Washington's global profile.

America's share of the Japanese wine market is currently only 12 percent by volume, with the Northwest's cut described as being "very small." But such low figures belie the quality of the region's wines, which have repeatedly trounced Burgundy's best vintages in blind tastings - it's no coincidence they're on the same latitude.

Well-suited to cool-climate grapes like the pinots, Riesling and GewEztraminer, French settlers started planting vines in Oregon in the 1860s, but the wine industry really began to develop in the 1970s. One of the first of a wave of young urban professionals fleeing the city were the Sokol Blossers, who made the move to Dundee, southwest of Portland, in 1971 and began planting their vines on a sunny hillside. Since then the family has watched the region spawn vintages that are being taken seriously. "Mom says that back then the Oregon wine industry could all fit in her living-room," quips current Vice President Alex Sokol Blosser, who calls his mom "boss"-today Oregon boasts around 168 wineries.



Although they started off planting a variety of grapes, they soon abandoned chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. "We ripped out the cabernet because it never ripened and every time we made wine it tasted like green pepper," explains the vintner, whose careful cultivation has made his winery one of Oregon's largest. The pinot noir, however, was a keeper, and with the addition of pinot gris - a red grape that's a genetic cousin of the noir but used to make white wines-the label has flourished. "Let the Californians, the Australians and French have the Chardonnay market and we'll do battle with pinot noir," says Sokol Blosser. Other vineyards throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho, similarly must capitalize on the strengths of their climate, soil and production to compete at home and abroad.

One of the vineyard's most successful vintages to date was the robust 1994, which suited the tastes of local connoisseurs. "A lot of Americans want their pinot to look like a cabernet and taste like a merlot, and the '94 was very successful because it was such a big and bold wine." In terms of Old World wineries, Sokol Blosser is an infant, but sticking to what they do best has allowed them to develop impressive results. With confidence the vintner adds, "The French say it takes three generations to make a great wine. I think we can make a great wine in one generation, but it'll take three to make money."

Alex Sokol Blosser

Join the cult
Oregon hasn't escaped the ongoing obsession many nouveaus have with cult or "boutique" wines. The beta model of a cult wine is Screaming Eagle from California-produced by a female winemaker, who only makes a couple of batches of cabernet sauvignon a year. "Robert Parker [of The Wine Advocate] regularly gives her 99 out of 100, and before you know it her wine's on a wine-list for 5000 bucks," says Sokol Blosser. Such limited production top-notch wines are the vehicles for many of the Northwest region's assistant winemakers to make a jump up. A winery like Sokol Blosser produces 5000 cases of pinot noir a year, while a cult winemaker will turn out only 500, staking their all on getting a good rating. "It's the famous-for-15-minutes of the wine world, but the challenge is, can you consistently do something like that?" Ultimately cult wines are all about making a better product, and Sokol Blosser agrees that the buzz surrounding them is good for the industry. These specialty wines are pushing back the edge, and the high prices correlate to their innovation.

In Japan, Sokol Blosser wines have had their own cult following since they were first imported in 1981. Gradually the list of restaurants stocking their vintages has increased and buyers have been impressed by the slick packaging and easily paired flavors. The buzz at their Kyoto tasting was over Evolution and the pinot noir - a cheaper alternative to red burgundy, but with comparable taste. A blend of nine white grapes, Evolution is Sokol Blosser's easy-to-drink house wine, retails for US$15, and is designed to complement fusion cuisine.

The ongoing Japanese red wine boom may help the Northwest's pinot noirs break into the market, but until there is wider distribution of vintages from smaller wineries the prize of top quality reds that undercut the French will go to those who persevere. Wine buffs are advised to put in a little legwork and track down these New World gems - as Sokol Blosser points out, "wine is part of the puzzle in making life better."

Information
Sokol Blosser's wines are available from their distributor, Filconservice, based in Shizuoka (tel: 0545-71-1312 for order inquiries) or direct from the vineyard (www.sokolblosser.com). For more information see North West Wine Coalition (www.northwestwine.org)


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