This month’s Virtual Tasting is tonight and will be the 2007 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet. This wine is widely available and retails for $15. Note that the H3 Cabernet recently had a vintage change, so some of you may still see the 2006 vintage on the shelves.

As usual, I will be opening the wine about 7pm Pacific Time and updating this post with my thoughts every 20 minutes or so. I will also be tweeting @wawinereport and using the hashtag #virtualtasting.

Please join us in trying this wine and posting your comments or tweeting your thoughts on the wine. To follow the comment thread on the post click on “Subscribe by email” in the bottom right in the Comments section.

7:00pm Update: And we’re off!

First some background for newcomers on what Virtual Tastings are all about. There is nothing I enjoy more than drinking and talking about wine with other people. I love hearing people’s thoughts on wine. I find I learn a great deal this way. Everyone has a different palate. While I am always interested to hear what people get in terms of aromas and flavors, I am most interested in hearing whether people like the wine or not. Their general impressions. My friends often make fun of me (mock me?) for saying “Can we talk about this wine?” in the midst of a group discussion. For me, this social aspect of wine drinking is a big part of the fun. For this reason, each month I select a specific wine and blog about it on a specific date and time and ask people to join in. In an ideal world, I would get us all in a room and we would try this wine together. Perhaps someday our avatars will meet in Second Life and we will sit down at a virtual table together. Until that time, we will share wine ‘virtually’ with comments, tweets, or whatever medium we can find. I hope you will share your thoughts.

7:10 Update: Some background on the winery. Columbia Crest was founded in 1983. At over 1.7 million cases per year, the winery is by a good stretch Washington’s largest wine producer. The winery, whose first release was in 1985, is located in Paterson, Washington in the southern part of the state near the Columbia River. Part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Columbia Crest is not only the state’s largest producer, it is also one of its most acclaimed. The winery’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve wine was recently named Wine Spectator’s 2009 ‘Wine of the Year.’

Columbia Crest has four basic tiers of wine. The Two Vines is their value brand which constitutes the vast bulk of their production. These wines are priced under $10 and are good daily drinkers. Next up is the Grand Estates at $12 which consistently offers value far above its price point. About two years back the winery added the H3 label, one of which is tonight’s Virtual Tasting wine. The wine is named after the Horse Heaven Hills AVA where the winery is located. These wines are priced around $18. Columbia Crest recently took the H3 label to nationwide distribution. Finally, at the top tier are their Reserve Wines generally priced about $30. At each tier, Columbia Crest offers good wine at exceptional values.

Ray Einberger serves as winemaker for Columbia Crest. Einberger joined Columbia Crest in 1993 and assumed the head winemaker position in 2002. Einberger had previously worked as part of the Opus One winemaking team as well as Silverado Vineyards and Round Hill Cellars – now Rutherford Ranch Winery – in Napa Valley.

On to the wine….

7:25 Update: Popped and poured. The wine is at 66 degrees. The bottle has a natural cork that is very lightly colored. The wine, however, has a dark, rich color. The nose shows a lot of cedar and spice with layers of black cherry beneath. I like the nose. Time for a taste…

7:40 Update: I like the nose but also find it fairly closed at the moment so I popped the wine into a decanter. A brief word about decanting wine. The purpose of decanting is to expose the wine to oxygen. This has a variety of effects that I won’t go in to at the moment. All I want to say here is that you don’t necessarily need to have a decanter to decant a wine. Pouring it in to any vessel (assuming you can get it out!) will have the desired effect.

More thoughts on the nose. A bit of dust and powdered chocolate. On the taste, my immediate thought is to be quite impressed. The taste is round with a smooth entry that builds up to a crescendo on the mid-palate. Fairly dry with a healthy dose of tannins that are still well-balanced. The wine is not as big and fruity on the taste as I imagined it might be. Personally, I am enjoying this about it.

8:00 Update: Background on Horse Heaven Hills…

Horse Heaven Hills received AVA status in 2005. The AVA has 8,400 planted acres and comprises approximately one quarter of the grapes planted in Washington. The AVA has more than 25 vineyards. Perhaps the most acclaimed of these is Champoux Vineyard whose fruit goes in to some of the state’s best wines. Elevations in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA range from 200 feet to 1,800 feet above sea level. The area was named by a cowboy who, in the mid-1800s, proclaimed it “Horse Heaven.”

8:20 Update: After a bit of time in the decanter, nose hasn’t evolved quite as much as I thought it might. That said, I am still enjoying it. There is some type of spice that I just can’t place. Time to start ripping apart the spice cabinet. A slightly smoky underlayer. Taste has filled out a bit.

8:45 Update: Just off a Skype session with some Virtual Tasters…

Time for some background information on the wine from the winery:

“Grapes were crushed at 20% whole-berry to retain fruit quality. Fermentation lasted 6-10 days on the skins to extract optimum fruit and structural components. The wine was barrel aged in 40% new American and French oak, and 60% older oak for 14-18 months. The wine was racked at three month and six month intervals during the 14-18 month barrel aging period.”

The winery also provides the following technical information:

* Total acidity: 0.54 g/100ml
* pH: 3.74
* Alcohol: 14.5%

9:00 Update: Some tasting notes from the internet….

From winemaker Ray Einberger: “This intense, fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon delivers aromas of cherries and huckleberry jam, with a perfect balance of earthy tannins, great focus in the mid-palate and a soft, smooth cocoa finish.”

From the major publications, Wine Spectator writes “Polished and silky in texture, with ripe blackberry, currant and mint flavors that keep sailing through the long, expressive finish. The tannins are beautifully integrated. Best from 2011 through 2017. 30,000 cases made. –HS, 90 pts”. No reviews yet from Wine Enthusiast or Wine Advocate.

On CellarTracker, this wine has received an average of 87 points and a median of 86 points in 6 tasting notes left by members of the community.

Next up, some final thoughts.

9:15 Update: Final update but feel free to keep the comments coming.

Some final thoughts on this wine. Overall, I truly enjoyed this wine. The nose is engaging and the taste is beautifully balanced with acid, tannins, and fruit. The finish is the only thing that leaves me a bit wanting. It’s not bad by any means. It just leaves me wanting a bit more.

I purchased the wine from Pete’s Bellevue for $12. It retails for $15. I’m having a tough time off the top of my head thinking of other Washington cabernets that could stand up against this wine at this price point. Let me know if you can, and I will see if I can scare something up. Once again, Columbia Crest showing why it is the leader for quality and value in the state.

If you didn’t have a chance to taste the wine tonight, feel free to try it at any point and get your thoughts up. Thanks to everyone who participated this month. We’ll do it all again next month. Let me know if you have any suggestions on the wine. Thanks to the reader who suggested this wine.