Firehouse Red: visting Tamarack Cellars

by Celia Strong

Welcome to a new year and 52 more chances to find another favorite wine. Isn’t that really the best part of wine drinking? There’s always another favorite out there, just waiting for us to find it. So, off we go to learn a new about a new one.

This week we’re going to Washington state, ranked second in the United States in wine production. While there are some viticultural activities in the cooler, wetter western part of the state, 99 percent of Washington’s wines come from the eastern half of the state with its almost desert-like conditions. Irrigation and water rights are a big part of the business there because the eight inches of annual rain they get each year are not even close to what’s needed for successful grape growing.Also, Washington gets two hours more of sunlight everyday than California.

In most wine producing areas, irrigation is not allowed and the grapes grow with whatever amount of rain they get in any year. It’s why the vintage is so important in some areas. (Vintage is literally the year the grapes are picked but they are picked after that year’s weather has grown them.) The wine industry in Washington would not exist without irrigation, nor would they be able to grow all the other fruits that come from there as well. The average eight inches of rain that they get each year is less than half of what they need for good grapes In addition, the irrigation helps the growers avoid frost on the vines. After harvest they wet the soil in the vineyards down about two feet. As winter comes and the temperatures drop, this water in the soil forms a protective layer of ice that will give the vines a few extra degrees of protection from freezing that can cause root damage. I guess we can see that Washington’s wine industry does have some special circumstances.

For our winery this week, we are going to the Walla Walla American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Established in 1984, most of this AVA is in Washington, but a small portion of it creeps south into Oregon as well. Along with its wine, Walla Walla if known for its sweet onions that are a local food and wine pairing favorite with a Walla Walla Merlot. What else? The region is generally wetter than the rest of Columbia Valley with 20 inches of rain each year, almost half of what grapes need. In 1998, Ron Coleman and his wife, Jamie, founded Tamarack Cellars. Rather than building a new facility, they found an abandoned World War II firehouse near the Walla Walla airport. Everything is done in this converted building: racking, blending and bottling. Tamarack’s first vintage was 300 cases of Merlot. Their goal was to make elegant, balanced, delicious wines and sell them at a fair price. They now make up to 20,000 cases and, as of 2007 with their highly acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon, have a solid reputation for good wines.Firehouse Red is Tamarack Cellars’   blend. The wine is aged 40 percent in new oak barrels, mostly French and American with a bit of Hungarian oak as well. The grapes are gently crushed and dropped by gravity into bins. They are cold soaked for 36 to 72 hours, yeast is added, hand punched and pressed into barrels where the fermentation is done.

The weather, vintage, for the 2009 was similar to the two previous vintages. (Note this because we’ll come back to it in a second.) There were hot conditions in the the late spring and early summer, then cooler night temperatures all summer. Then above average temperatures closer to maturity brought the harvest on quickly with the grapes having great natural acidity and balanced flavors. The wine has pretty notes of vanilla, blackberry, cherry and rose petals—one of my favorite subtleties.

The 2008 Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red was rated very well by the Wine Spectator.  In fact, it was the number 49 wine in the top 100 for 2010. I know our current vintage is the 2009, but that’s why the similarity in the weather between the two years is so important. Similar weather makes for similar grapes makes for similar wines. So, there you have it—a great wine.  And fairly priced at $16.99.  Hope you like it as much as I do.  Enjoy!

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