Lowden Hills Merlot 2003

Having spent four years of my life in Washington state – and three months of that getting a Wine Trade Professional certificate at Central Washington University – I believe that I was finally able to get a sense of what Washington wines are like.Although the terroir of the place is dodgy – the Missoula floods pretty much guaranteed that there isn’t very much of interest going on there, at least in terms of soils – there’s something about the climate that seems to determine a very specific style. Washington is a far bigger state than Seattle and the Puget Sound; yes, Seattle is cold and rainy much of the time (heck, even Dan Savage is starting to complain about the lack of a summer so far this year), but once you cross the Cascades towards Yakima, Red Mountain, and Walla Walla, things change dramatically. Although the winters are cold enough to cause serious damage to grapevines every decade or so, the summers are plenty warm – and balanced out by some seriously cool nighttime temperatures.There’s a certain treble-ness to a lot of Washington wines; the cool nights seem to imbue them with a nervy, electric energy that is a wonderful complement to the dark, ripe character of the fruit. Thanks to the economic boom of the 1990s – and, in Washington at least, the continued good times of the early 2000s (due in large part to corporations such as Starbucks, Amazon.com, and Microsoft), there’s been a massive explosion in the number of wineries up there, many of them family farms trying to cash in on the huge upturn in Washington’s wine quality by making their own wine instead of selling to huge corporations such as Chateau Ste. Michelle.I ventured out to Walla Walla for their annual barrel tasting weekend twice: both times, I marveled at ad hoc helicopter landing pads set up for wealthy tourists from the Puget Sound, just-opened wineries done up in a fake Tuscan style, complete with $75 syrah from two-year old vines. I also basked in the hospitality of some old-time Walla Wallans (thanks again, Brian!) who took pride in the simple fact that some of the local wineries had been there for some time and didn’t charge ridiculous sums of money for some very impressive wines (the Glen Fiona syrahs from the late 1990s come to mind).Anyhow: the first thing that sprang to mind upon smelling this wine was whoa, this couldn’t be from anywhere other than Washington – and it smells like a small family operation on one of their first vintages. There’s a certain smell here that gives it away – it smells like immaculately grown fruit combined with good quality barrels and perhaps a certain amount of what, for a lack of a better word, I’ll call manipulation. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just that some wines smell as if they were effortlessly made directly from the soil of the vineyard (cf. Clonakilla, Ridge, Vieux-Telegraphe, others). This doesn’t.Instead, it’s got a kind of bacon bits aroma to it, combined with sweet oak of some kind; it also has the same, high-toned note to it you’d expect from a quality Washington wine. It also has a very ripe, jammy, Red Vines-esque heft to it that is rather more appealing than I’m describing it, I assure you.It’s agreeably balanced in the mouth, with steely acidity, good, ripe fruit, and a surprising hint of mintiness or eucalyptus there as well. Oddly enough, it seems like it could also work as a chewing gum flavor for adults – something in the clove gum mold of the 1940s. Tannins are moderate and unintrusive, the finish is pleasant if a touch short, and overall it’s, alas, nothing special, really. Still, that isn’t to say it’s a bad bottle of wine – far from it. What you’re getting here is – in my opinion at least – typicité, Walla Walla style, and at a much fairer price than most of ’em.Lowden HillsPrice: US $24Closure: CorkDate tasted: June 2008

2 thoughts on “Lowden Hills Merlot 2003

  1. “Although the terroir of the place is dodgy – the Missoula floods pretty much guaranteed that there isn’t very much of interest going on there, at least in terms of soils”

    Couldn’t disagree more. Walla Walla has a huge variety of soil terroirs that impart distinctive character to its wines. Only the areas below 1200 ft. were affected by the Missoula floods. Some of the best and most distinctive wines (think Cayuse) are coming from grapes grown in rocky alluvial fans near Milton-Frewwater that have nothing to do with the Missoula floods. Waters Winery has two syrahs, vinified in exactly the same way, from Loess vineyard (above the floods) and Forgotten Hills vineyard (below the floods) that spectacularly show the contrast in terroir. Many other examples exist. It’s impossible to generalize Walla Walla wines as there is no one terroir.

  2. Terroirist – My bad, I wasn’t making myself clear at all. Much of Washington’s wine growing area (and here, I’m referring to the Columbia valley, etc. – think the huge vineyards near the river) in general is fairly straightforward in terms of soils (the Missoula flood debris I was referring to), but yes, you are absolutely right about Walla Walla. There’s a reason those wines don’t taste quite like other ones from around the state, and yes, I am guilty of gross oversimplification here. Thank you for your comment – it’s easy for out-of-staters to dumb down an entire state to a caricature, and I’ll try to avoid that in the future.

    As for Cayuse, I’ve always heard great things, but could never find any of the wine for sale. Thankfully, they graciously sold me a few bottles last year; I haven’t tried it yet, but the very idea of biodynamically grown wine from a unique terroir is certainly giving me an awful lot of anticipation. I hope to share a bottle with Julian later this year assuming I can get it past Australian customs. 🙂

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