WASHINGTON'S Yakima Valley, famous for its apples, is emerging as one of the country's outstanding wine- producing areas. The valley's 3,500 acres of vitis vinifera occupy the region near the 46th parallel, the same latitude as Burgundy, and more hours of sunlight could give the valley's 20 wineries an edge over California wineries.
The extra sunlight seems to have benefited The Hogue Cellars, which occupies what was once farmland. The winery, which won gold medals for its first releases in 1982, captured 12 golds last year.
When I visited the winery a couple years ago, I tasted all of The Hogue Cellars wines in current release, including the excellent Sauvignon Blanc, winner in the Kapalua Wine Symposium competition on Maui. Here in this remote farmland in the Pacific Northwest, the sophistication of vinous finesse across the board came as a surprise. It's rare to find outstanding Riesling and Chardonnay on an estate that also is producing fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It's like putting Rhineland, Burgundy and Bordeaux all in the same plot.
A current sampling:
Hogue Cellars 1987 Yakima Valley Chardonnay-Reserve ($10.95). It was a very warm harvest season east of the Cascades in 1987, so the grapes from the winery's Sunnyside Estate Vineyard matured with full body and intense ripe-fruit character. As a result, the bouquet is intriguing. The wine has a regional distinction that can be described as "good tasting Yakima Valley Chardonnay." It has buttery aromas and long, rich tastes.
Hogue Cellars 1986 Washington State Merlot ($11.95). This delightfully accessible claret is composed of 92% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. In the glass, it becomes a liquid jewel of ruby brilliance. The bouquet only hints at the wine's aging in American oak, suggesting more immediately a loganberry taste in the French style. Enjoyable now, the Merlot will gain depth and complexity with cellar aging.
Hogue Cellars 1987 Yakima Valley White Riesling-Markin Vineyard Late Harvest ($7.49). The Markin Vineyard is on steep, north-facing slopes, which means that ripening takes longer. Vintage 1987 allowed wine maker Rob Griffin to delay the harvesting until the fruit developed abundant sugar and a balancing acidity. The Riesling is a gentle wine, with only 4.3% residual sweetness. A natural spritz gives the wine an appetizing offset to the sugar. Ideal for brunch.
For all of its distinction in wine making--Hogue Cellars took home 26 silvers and 29 bronzes in addition to its golds last year--the Hogue family remains low key in the world of competitive commerce. The vineyards have their roots in farmland. Wayne Hogue arrived in the Yakima Valley in 1948, planting hops, asparagus and Concord grapes.
In 1979, Hogue sons Mike and Gary were convinced that fine wine grapes would thrive, even though they would need controlled irrigation. While still farming 1,300 acres of their regular crops, the brothers took 210 acres of farmland for Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The volcanic soil is ideal--porous, deep and sandy.
In 1982, Mike and Gary founded The Hogue Cellars and released 2,000 cases of Riesling and Chenin Blanc. Today, production is up to 100,000 cases annually, which are distributed in 35 states, Japan, Great Britain, Mexico and Norway.