Know your wine words: the state of estate and more
Vague wine-label terms can make selecting a wine far more complicated than it might seem, says wine columnist Paul Gregutt.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Arbor Crest 2009 Four Vineyards Merlot; $15
Tart and bright, this almost-jammy mix of raspberry and strawberry fruit flavors over-delivers for the price. Along with the luscious fruit are darker streaks of iron, coffee grounds and char, all in a classy, well-designed four-vineyard blend. (Distributed by Odom)
WHAT DOES it mean when you see the words "estate-grown" on a wine label? Or for that matter, "estate bottled," "proprietor grown," "vintner grown" or "single vineyard"? Last January, the federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced it would hold hearings to improve or impose the legal definitions of these and other vague wine-label terms. This is far more complicated than it might seem.
Take "estate bottled" for example. The existing rules require that an estate-bottled wine is labeled with an official appellation. The grapes must be grown and the winery must be located within the same region, and the vineyard source(s) must be "owned or controlled" by the winery.
But what exactly constitutes control? For that matter, what exactly is an estate? The TTB notes that "the regulations do not address or define the word 'estate' or 'estates' when used alone or with additional words other than 'estate bottled.' " So from a legal standpoint, "estate grown" is essentially meaningless.
Even so, it can be a useful quality indicator when the winery is a small, family-owned enterprise. Estate grown should mean (and usually does mean) that the winery grew the grapes, made the wine and did it all on-site.
When an estate-grown wine is also a vineyard designate, and the label names the actual vineyard, you are on more solid ground. Stringent legal requirements dictate that a wine must be at least 95 percent made of grapes grown in that vineyard.
Now we're getting somewhere. When a label names the grape and vineyard, and also uses the term estate-grown, you may assume that the vineyard is directly tied to the actual winemaking.
Here in Washington, many growers also own wineries. When they make a single-vineyard, 100 percent varietal wine (no other grapes in the blend), you have the sort of pinpoint focus — grape, land and vintner — that can often produce wines with genuine terroir. That said, there are also top-notch winemakers who source single-vineyard grapes, and excellent growers who do not necessarily make wines from their vineyards.
Grower Dave Minick no longer owns the Willow Crest brand, but the wines made from his vineyard are as good as ever. Look for Willow Crest 2010 Estate Grown Riesling ($10) — a delightful wine, off-dry, low in alcohol and done in a German style. Also recommended is the Willow Crest 2010 Estate Grown Pinot Gris ($10).
Chris Dowsett and Mike Januik are winemakers who specialize in single-vineyard wines, made unblended as pure varietals. The Dowsett Family 2010 Celilo Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($22) features lip-smacking acidity in a spicy wine redolent of rose petals, lemons, grapefruit, star fruit and gooseberries.
Januik's 2009 Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay ($25) is a sculptural, finely detailed effort. His 2008 Januik Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Petit Verdot ($35) is a rare varietal offering whose earthy, thick tannins cover sleek red fruits.
The family-owned Otis Kenyon winery has released a juicy and complex 2008 Stellar Vineyard Syrah ($38) from estate-grown grapes in a cobblestone-rich section of the Walla Walla Valley.
The Gamache family has been farming wine grapes in the Yakima Valley for 30 years. Their Gamache Vintners 2007 Estate Malbec ($28) and Gamache Vintners 2008 Estate Cabernet Franc ($24) both offer ripe, lovely, brambly berry flavors.
On the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, the Brown family farms orchards and vineyards and produces pure varietal wines under their Watermill label. Look for Watermill's 2008 Estate Malbec and 2008 Estate Cabernet Franc (each $28).
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.