New Releases from Washington State

At a time when some of Washington’s most thoughtful winemakers are considering how they might make ripe, satisfying wines at lower alcohol levels, recent vintages have brought a return to more normal conditions following the 2003-2005 trio of very warm years. In my extensive tastings of Washington wines in Seattle and in Walla Walla Valley at the end of July and in recent weeks back in New York, I sampled 2006 reds from most of the state’s best producers, and I’m happy to report that this was a year that benefited from a more leisurely ripening process. There was a single heat spike in August but the weather cooled off at harvest time and growers could generally pick at their leisure, often well into October. The wines show fresher natural acidity than the 2005s, and in many cases more complexity. With healthier pHs, these wines are likely to enjoy a slow and leisurely development in bottle.

Two thousand seven is also quite different in character from recent hot years like 2005 and 2003, and I was particularly impressed by the freshness of the white wines I tasted—not just viogniers but rieslings, sauvignon/semillon blends and even chardonnays. Early evidence is that 2007 is an exceptional vintage for Washington’s white wines. But with no burst of heat at the end, it was a challenge to get the cabernet fruit fully ripe in some sites, especially where crop loads were too heavy.

Today, many Washington growers are harvesting smarter: they’re picking on flavor profile rather than on Brix levels, waiting for the acids to go down. At the same time, they know they need healthy acidity to make fresh wines, and they would like to rely less on acidification. While growing seasons like ’06 and ’07 (and probably ’08 as well) have been conducive to making wines in this style, there will still remain the longer-term challenge of getting fruit phenolically ripe before grape sugars skyrocket and acidity levels plunge. Hence the constant search for cooler and generally higher-altitude sites with less brutal exposure to the sun, more air movement, and a potentially longer and less extreme growing season.

My annual trip to Washington is always a voyage of discovery, and this year I had the impression of experiencing early releases—and some barrel samples—from more potential future stars than ever before (perhaps not a surprise, as nearly 80 of the state’s roughly 540 wineries will release their first crop of wines from vintage 2006). Among emerging wineries of note are such producers as Cadaretta Winery, Efesté, O’Shea Scarborough, Pacific Rim, Trust Cellars, Va Piano and Woodinville Cellars. Add these to the list of producers I named last year—àMaurice Cellars, Chateau Rollat, Brian Carter Cellars, Gramercy Cellars, Mark Ryan Winery and Waters Winery—and wine lovers have a pretty impressive list of new choices. And then there’s Corliss Estates, this year’s #1 new superstar on the Washington scene, with a bullet.