Northstar, which started out as a Merlot-only winery, is expanding into other varietals, and those new wines just might overshadow the Merlot.
I stopped by the winery on a recent visit to Washington to taste and chat with Jed Steele, the California-based winemaker who has consulted on Northstar since its inception in 1994. The winery operates under the umbrella of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Expecting to taste barrel samples of Merlots, I instead found myself sipping through a lineup of unreleased wines that included dazzlingly tangy and stylish Cabernet Francs, a truly elegant Syrah and even a lithe, subtle Cabernet Sauvignon. There's even a white wine, a Sémillon blend. In blind tastings in my office in San Francisco, I rated the 2003 Cab and Syrah at 89 points. The Cab Franc makes its debut with 2004, and it's even better.
So what gives? Is Northstar losing its focus? Well, not exactly. These new bottlings represent only a few hundred cases each. Northstar's production is still 90 percent Merlot, divided between two bottlings, Columbia Valley ($41) and Walla Walla ($60). It also has made a second label, a red blend called Stella Maris ($29).
Northstar's winemakers always made some lots from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah to use as blending material for the Merlots. What they didn't use went into the Stella Maris blend. "Sometimes, how shall we say, Stella Maris could be as good as if not better than the Northstar Merlot," Steele says. "That's one of the forces that led to these small bottlings."
Another factor: Visitors to the winery, near the entrance to Pepper Bridge Vineyard in the Walla Walla district, wanted to try other wines besides Merlot.
Currently, the Syrah ($40) and Cabernet ($60) are the only non-Merlot wines available, and they are both beautifully made. To my taste, they are better than the 2002 Northstar Merlots, but so are the 2003 Northstar Merlots, which seem to have polished off the rough edges that kept recent vintages from being all they could be.
"The issue for us is tannin management," says Steele. "The wines have such high levels of tannin naturally, we have to do something to mitigate that." He banished press wines from the blends and encouraged the winemakers to use more whole berries in the fermentors and to use shorter, warmer fermentations.
The results in 2003 are splendid, a pair of Merlots with real seductiveness and style. Northstar is back on track.
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