New Releases from Washington State

While Washington’s 2007 crop of wines will be covered in depth over the next year or three, it’s not too early to say that this vintage will be tricky in spots, due to rainy, cooler weather during the latter half of the harvest, which may have affected the later-ripening cabernet. Certainly, the state’s growers had become spoiled by a trio of clement seasons that offered favorable conditions and atypically long hang time for their grapes to develop even greater intensity of varietal character than usual—and it’s clear from my tastings that every vintage since 2000 has yielded many fine bottles.

In the following report on my extensive tastings in Washington this summer and in New York this fall, tasting notes are provided only for wines I rated 87 points or higher. Many additional soundly made wines are simply listed as “also recommended.” As a measure of the steady improvement shown by Washington State wine in the past couple of years, and especially the high quality of recent vintages, you’ll see far more 87+ wines than ever before.

Recent vintages. This summer I enjoyed my first in-depth look at big reds from Washington’s highly promising 2005 vintage. A warm September without extremes of heat made for longer hang time, and resulted in many fresh white wines and dense reds. Ben Smith (Cadence Winery) noted that the colors in 2005 were more saturated than those of the previous year (and were darker still in 2006!). Producers who are particularly high on 2005 cite the energy of these wines, and winemakers like Smith, Paul Golitzin (Quilceda Creek) and Bob Betz (Betz Family Cellars) believe that they have made powerful, firmly structured wines that will be unusually long-lived. Other winemakers I tasted with in September made reference to the thorough ripeness and overall balance of their 2005s. Chris Figgins, who told me that he did no acidification in 2005, reported that the fruit showed very good physiological ripeness without the exaggerated sugar levels of the previous harvest.

Two thousand four was another excellent year for quality in Washington State, although a brutal January freeze sharply cut back production in some areas, particularly in the Walla Walla Valley. It was essential to take steps in the vineyards to ameliorate the uneven ripening that could occur where the secondary buds competed with the primary buds that survived the winter freeze. This was a very warm year, and some growers started harvesting their fruit on the early side, but September turned cooler, with some rain, allowing many growers to let their fruit hang. A relaxed harvest made for better conditions than the previous year, when a high percentage of fruit had been picked in very hot conditions. As a rule, pHs are healthy in 2004 and berry size was small, but there are also plenty of wines with unwieldy alcohol levels and low acidity.

Two thousand six saw a fairly even growing season, with clear skies, cool nights and mild temperatures through much of September and October, with an absence of heat bursts. As a rule, growers were able to let the fruit hang (in some cases, they had no choice, as ripening came slowly), and the grapes maintained sound acidity and generally did not reach excessive sugar levels. Needless to say, these conditions were conducive to making fresh white wines, but they also produced red wines with density and freshness. Bob Betz described his young 2006s as fairly big and thick wines, “but juicy.”

What I discovered. Among the highlights of my recent tastings: Numerous viognier bottlings that combine a fleshiness of texture with lively, fruit-driven aromas reminiscent of the northern Rhône. Interesting syrahs from emerging producers who appear to have a working knowledge of French wine (best of all, some of these bottlings really taste like syrah, rather than simply another flavor of red wine). A compelling new grenache from the multitalented Christophe Baron (Cayuse), one hopes the first of many from Washington State. A growing number of suave and understated cabernets and Bordeaux blends that are closer in character to Bordeaux than to California in the way they combine ripe flavors, harmonious oak and good inner-mouth verve with moderate levels of alcohol. Continued excellence from many of the state’s most dependable sources, such as Andrew Will Winery, Betz, Cadence, Cayuse Winery, DeLille Cellars, Leonetti Cellars, Owen Roe, Quilceda Cree and Soos Creek Wine Cellars. And of course, as always, several exciting emerging producers—or at least names new to this reviewer—and wineries on a steep upward curve: àMaurice, Chateau Rollat, Brian Carter Cellars, Gramercy Cellars, Mark Ryan Winery and Waters Winery, to name just a few.

On the downside are the usual suspects and some new offenders who are making dilute, green, or ungenerous wines. I tasted far too many wines killed by heavyhanded use of oak, or overextraction from young-vine material that can’t support it. Many wines continue to show high levels of volatile acidity or incipient oxidative character from sloppy élevage. And, of course, as always, there’s the essential simplicity that characterizes so many New World wines made by winemakers who are learning on the job. Today, Washington State produces many, many medium-to-full-bodied wines that have at least the dimensions of serious wine, and some of these have already garnered customer support and positive press in the Northwest. But the critic’s challenge should be to differentiate between wines that are fresh, balanced, complex and reasonably refined and those that are merely rough approximations of world-class wine.