In the hills southwest of Eugene, Oregon, on a former cattle ranch, lies King Estate Winery. Founded in 1991 by Ed King Jr. and his son, Ed King III, King Estate released its first vintage in 1992 and has been certified organic since 2002. In fact, its 470 acre vineyard, which forms part of a larger integrated ecosystem, with wetlands, and organic gardens and orchards, is the largest contiguous organic vineyard in the United States. Like most Oregon producers, King built its name on Pinot Noir. Today, the Pinot remains rock-solid in quality, but recently, we've been impressed by their stainless-steel fermented Pinot Gris. The basic bottling is made in a bright, crisp, minerally style, while the more expensive Domaine bottling, from the estate's organic grapes, has set a new Oregon standard for its intensity, fullness and sheer scale.
Although wine-growing in Oregon stretches from the California border to Washington, for most wine lovers Oregon means the Willamette Valley, a temperate, ocean-influenced growing area extending from Portland south to Eugene, or roughly a hundred miles. The majority of the state's best producers are grouped around the towns of McMinnville, Carlton, Dundee, and Newberg, as well as near the state capital, Salem.
Oregon's past and future reputation as a world-class growing region rests squarely on Pinot Noir. Hyped in the early 1980s as the New World's answer to red Burgundy, Oregon Pinot Noir has steadily improved since then as local growers have discovered the best sites and done a better job matching clones to microclimates.
Oregon's Pinots typically feature exuberant cherry-berry aromas and flavors; varying degrees of spicy oak; medium body; and reasonable tannin levels. They generally carry moderate alcohol in the 12.5% to 14% range, lower than those of today's typical Pinots from California, although very warm years can bring wines with higher alcohol and more roasted flavors. Rarely austere or tough on release, the best Oregon Pinots gain in complexity with three to five years of bottle aging, and top wines from the most successful vintages can improve in bottle for a decade or more. ""Tender"" might be an apt description of the best Oregon Pinot Noirs.
Oregon Pinot Gris is usually fermented to complete dryness, and few examples see much oak. The top producers make brisk, highly aromatic, light- to medium-bodied wines that emphasize orchard fruits, often with citrus elements as well. These wines are excellent choices with a range of warm-weather fare and go especially well with light, fresh seafood preparations.
Cabernet Sauvignon Facts
Full, tannic wines with notes of blackcurrant and cassis
Grilled red meats, stews, hard or rich cheeses
Cabernet Sauvignon has been the flagship red grape of the California wine industry for decades, and its popularity shows no sign of abating. Napa Valley is the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon production and is clearly an ideal region for creating world-class wines. If any Cabernet-based wine is capable of giving Bordeaux a run for its money, it's Napa Valley's examples. However, due to the extremely high cost of purchasing and developing vineyards in California, and the cachet of Napa Valley on the label, this has largely become a category for the well-heeled wine lover.
At their best, Napa Valley's Cabernets are characterized by fruit notes of cassis, black cherry, and licorice and sweet oak notes of chocolate, mocha, cedar, and tar. Today, most of the best wines are aged entirely or almost completely in French oak barrels, which tend to produce somewhat more refined wines than do most American barrels. (These latter barrels often introduce exotic and pungent suggestions of scotch, bourbon, tar, coconut, and dill.) But the use of expensive French oak is no guarantee of a good bottle: too many wines today, due to high crop levels or insufficiently ripe fruit, do not have the stuffing to support their oakiness and can quickly be dominated or even dried out by their wood component. The best California Cabernets mellow and soften with five to ten years of bottle aging, developing more complex and less fruit-dominated notes of tobacco, leather, and earth, with mellower wood tones. Compared to the top Bordeaux, however, many California Cabernet Sauvignons merely endure in bottle rather than truly become more interesting. There are no shortage of quality producers, even if these wines are rarely values. And it remains to be seen if today's outsized showstoppers, made from superripe grapes and undeniably impressive on release, will reward extended bottle aging or will turn out to have been best suited for drinking in their youth.
Many wines labeled Cabernet Sauvignon contain small percentages of other so-called Bordeaux varieties -- chiefly Merlot and Cabernet Franc but also Petit Verdot and even Malbec (varietally labeled wines in California must contain at least 75% of the variety named).
Cabernet Sauvignon also flourishes in Washington State, Australia and even Chile. In Washington, prices have been creeping up at the high end, with some producers aiming to compete with cult wines from the Napa Valley. Consider Chateau Ste. Michelle and Woodward Canyon. In Australia, look to the Coonawarra and Margaret River regions. Chile can reveal excellent bargains to those who know where to look: Montes makes a strong range of quality bottlings, as does Casa Lapostolle.
As Cabernet Sauvignon is bold and assertive on the palate, it pairs best with foods like grilled red meats. Taken together, the proteins and fats in the food neutralize some of the stronger tannic qualities of the wine, leading to a harmonic combination that enhances both partners.