a northstar vertical – part two

Friday, August 13, 2010

Yesterday I posted notes from the first half of a vertical tasting of Northstar Columbia Valley Merlots, done at the winery with winemaker David ‘Merf’ Merfeld. I made tasting notes as I would for new releases, and just for fun, I scored the wines, based upon how they are presently showing. Later, I went back to my original reviews and scores and compared them. In the notes below, you’ll see two numbers; the first is the score from this recent tasting, and the second is the original score from my initial review. Why the discrepancies? I think it has a lot to do with the way the wines have evolved. Scores for the more recent vintages line up pretty well, but the wines from 2001 – 2003 show a big variation.

Could be that I’ve become more consistent with time. Could also be that, as I’ve often noted, good Washington merlots really hit their prime at about 8 years of age – putting these vintages exactly in the sweet spot.

I also noted percentages of the different grapes in the blends. Though labeled merlot, these wines often come close to the minimum amount (75%) to qualify for varietal labeling. Meanwhile, the nuances attained by adding petit verdot and cab franc suggest to me that perhaps it would free the winemaker’s hand to eliminate the varietal requirement. Northstar was founded as a merlot specialist, which made sense 20 years ago, but may have outlived its usefulness. With a new, 100% merlot project called Big Dipper now in barrel, might it not be time to treat this brand more as a Col Solare, with just the name Northstar to signify that it is a blend of Bordeaux grapes?

Northstar 2001 Columbia Valley Merlot (75%M/25%CS) 14.5%
Lovely bottle, fragrant and pleasingly floral, with additional notes of oak and vanilla. Full-bodied, supple and penetrating, it is maturing nicely. The mix of fruits includes citrus and tropical highlights, along with the full middle of berry and cherry. 91/88

Northstar 2002 Columbia Valley Merlot (76%M/23%CS/1%PV) 14.2%
Alcohol coming down a bit, and petit verdot in the blend for the first time. A wow! nose introduces a dark, supple, and oaky wine, loaded with ripe fruit. Powerful, meaty, full-bodied and yet balanced, this is thrilling merlot, drinking at the perfect cusp of flavor between youth and maturity. 93/87

Northstar 2003 Columbia Valley Merlot (82%M/15%CS/3%PV) 14.6%
A bit more petit verdot in the blend, and alcohol creeping higher again. Drinking very well, with a rich. lush, toasty nose loaded with berries, cherries and chocolate. The flavors are threaded and woven together, textural and dense, a lovely mix of black fruits and new oak barrels. 94/88

Northstar 2004 Columbia Valley Merlot (76%M/14%CS/10%PV) 14.5%
The petit verdot (now up to 10%) really elevates the nose with a delicious floral bouquet. The fruit is still a bit grapey, and the wine feels soft and lush in the mouth. Blackberry, black cherry, and a streak of citrus dominate the flavor, but there is a sense of compact layering that suggests a long life ahead. 92/92

Northstar 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot (80%M/17%CS/3%PV) 14.7%
Coming after so many older wines, this seems tightly bound, dense with blueberry/blackberry fruit, laced with streaks of coffee. Appealing heft and fullness, and at least five years away from optimal drinking window. 92/91

Northstar 2006 Columbia Valley Merlot (76%M/19%CS/3%PV/2%CF) 14.7%
For the first time there are four grapes in the blend, with the addition of cabernet franc. The oak is 70% French and 30% American, two thirds new. Young and toasty, with primary black fruits, this shows plenty of barrel flavors. Smoke, earth and coffee streaks are woven throughout, but this is a tight, tannic, youthful wine that will require significant cellaring to show its full complexity. 91/92


Anonymous said...

Just to be clear. All of your notes apply to the Columbia Valley versions. No Walla Walla Northstar Merlot was a part of this tasting?

PaulG said...

Correct. We tasted Columbia Valley bottles exclusively. The Walla Walla bottling was begun in 2000, but were not included in this tasting.

MagnumGourmet said...


The comparative scores from different times brings up an interesting question. Is the score you provide based on the wine as it stands at the very moment, or is there a certain portion that reflects future potential? Based on the verbiage of the notes, I was surprised how close the scores of the new vintages compared to the 01-03 that you felt were at peak. Hoping you can shed a bit more light on your scoring methodology.

PaulG said...

When reviewing very young (just released) wines, which is the case 99% of the time, I go to great lengths to try to let the wine open up and to see how I think it will age. I often taste wines repeatedly over many hours, even days. And I reflect that in the score, believing that the best wines have the structure, density, layering and textural qualities that should, over time, develop into mature complexity. However, it's a guess. As I wrote, it could be that I've become more consistent, or it could simply be that the lower, earlier scores reflected the wine at the time it was released. I think it's much more important to see that the newer vintage scores matched - that tells me that when I am tasting essentially the same wine, I give it essentially the same score. And believe me, with my memory and all the wines I taste, I had no idea what those original scores were when I put down the new ones.

Erika Szymanski said...

An interesting consideration on whether the 75% merlot requirement and Northstar's emphasis on merlot vs. Bordeaux blends places harmful constraints on the winemaker. I'd like to play devils' advocate a bit and bring up the old argument that rules bring true freedom. Students of poetic form often note that abiding by a structure or framework focuses and refines creativity. A framework creates expectations; deviations from or exemplary realizations of those expectations create art and interest. Without an idea of what to expect, anything seems good; add expectations, and an experience that exceeds them becomes superlative.

If Northstar moved away from "merlot" (ignoring the winery's non-merlot varietal bottlings) would their wines become more generically good and less sometime-excellent?

PaulG said...

Very thoughtful comment, Erika. I have certainly seen more than a few WA wines - not cheap or poorly made – that suffered from just such a lack of a clearcut framework. From vintage to vintage blends, vineyards, and grape varieties change, so you don't know what to expect or where the winemaker is going. That said, I still think that if Northstar wants to make Merlot, it should be close to 100% Merlot, and if they want to do BDX blends, they should drop the varietal nomenclature. Or do as I suggest, and make both types of wine.

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