By Celia Strong
Not to be confused with the sand bar of local renown. Nor to be confused with any other bar. Although, if a bar is someplace you can go and drink, we are, at least, going to do that. Drink, I mean. Before I confuse you completely, let’s just note that “bar” is part of our wines’ name this week. And, as long as I’m being nice and trying not to confuse you, I did mean to put the apostrophe after the “s” in “wines.” Yes, the plural “wines.” Yes, we have two wines this week. So, let’s get to them. Afterwards, each of us can handle our own “bars.” No matter what kind they are.
Washington State is the source for our wines. The Columbia Valley specifically. We need to learn a bit about the soils here, so that we can understand our wines and their flavors. Oh, goody! Geology. (I guess I can stand it for the sake of these wines. Otherwise, my thinking is no science is good science. And a picture is even easier.) The soils, mountain ranges and valleys of the Pacific Northwest were formed by some of the most cataclysmic geological forces ever. In particular, the soils that were formed by rushing waters, traveling over assorted sites, dropping soil, fine particles of silt, sand, gravel and eroded pieces of rocks in new areas.
All these loose pieces are called alluvial material, and, when they end up settling in one spot, they are called alluvial deposits. These pieces and parts of alluvial deposits are not “glued” together. They may get a bit compacted, but they retain much of their looseness. A great thing for drainage in a vineyard. If a vine’s soil does not hold water, the roots have to work harder to find enough moisture to grow well. Working vines grow better flavored fruit. More flavor in the grapes means more in their wines. Easy, right? The term “terroir” really does apply here. Grapes grown in vineyards with alluvial deposits are good examples of how a soil is reflected in a wine.
The Columbia Valley is an AVA in Washington State. Mostly. A small bit of it is also located in Oregon. The Columbia River, and its many tributaries (including the Snake River, the Walla Walla River and the Yakima River), all donated and carried debris and soil bits into the Columbia Basin. Although it is a cooler area, the northern location of the basin allows its vineyards to get two more hours of sun than those in California.
Warm days and cool nights let the grapes ripen slowly, with complexity. Irrigation is used in the vineyards because they have a very low annual rainfall. Not nearly enough for the grapes. (Seems the mountains to the west block the moisture from the Pacific Ocean from coming to the east.) The soils of Washington produce red wines that are elegant, soft, complex and concentrated. Their whites have depth, softness and a minerality.
All of which gets us to our winery for this week. Gravel Bar. With what we learned in our last paragraph, we should realize where this name came from. And, what it means to us as wine drinkers. Gravel Bars grapes grow in the eastern part of the Columbia Valley. Where the alluvial deposits were brought by torrential flood waters from melting Ice Age glaciers. The soil is sandy and rocky. Starting with the Gravel Bar Chardonnay, only because it’s the first one we tasted, this wine is one hundred percent Chardonnay. And, one hundred percent from the Columbia Valley, also. The grapes are picked in the early evening, when they are cooling off, which helps make a great, balanced acidity in the finished wine. After fermentation, the wine is aged for eight months in American oak barrels. This Chardonnay has plump flavors of apples and pears, a hint of herbs and some baking spices on its finish. In Washington, they enjoy this Chardonnay with steamed sea bass, poached salmon, creamy chowders, chicken with cream sauces, rich foods and comfort foods. What did we say about Washington whites? Deep, soft and minerally? Taste this Chardonnay and you’ll know exactly what that means. Unfortunately, only twenty-four hundred cases were made this year. Taste for $13.99.
Gravel Bar Alluvial Red is obviously named for its vineyard’s soil. It is a blend of thirty-one percent Syrah, thirty percent Cabernet Sauvignon, twenty-one percent Merlot and eighteen percent other Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot, in no particular order). All of these grapes are from the Columbia Valley, one hundred percent. After fermentation and blending, the wine is aged in American oak barrels for ten months. This wine is juicy and flavorful, heavy enough to go with meats, but mellow enough to go with poultry and seafood’s. And spicy foods. It has flavors of black cherries, dark plums, cloves, vanilla and toasty oak, white pepper and even floral notes. Its flavors and textures are complex and intense. Elegant, soft and concentrated, we said? Gee, right again. There are twenty-seven hundred cases of this wine. For $16.99.
All in all, our new Gravel Bar wines are terrific. We may have to be clearer when we talk about spending the day on the sand bar. There will be a difference between that and an evening with some Gravel Bar. But, maybe, we’ll all like these wines so much we can do both. Lots. I’ll leave you to handle all your own bars. Enjoy.