New Releases from Washington State

If this year’s coverage of new releases from Washington State is longer than ever before, that’s because there are more wines worthy of your notice than previously. Sure, I’m still depressed by the number of oxidized, hollow or otherwise flawed wines I taste on my annual visit to Washington State, and amazed that the offending wineries can find homes for these bottles. But today’s stiff competition to sell wine in a difficult economic environment, in conjunction with new plantings of the right varieties in the right sites, the steady maturation of existing vines, and more careful winemaking and élevage, have enabled previous underperformers to make solid wines and allowed Washington’s stars to take their wines to a yet higher level of quality.

Like so many winemakers in California, growers in Washington once harvested strictly on brix levels whether the grapes had achieved phenolic ripeness or not. Then they got the idea that they needed to pick their grapes with fully brown seeds in order to make great wine; and now they’re coming around to thinking that the ideal time to harvest lies somewhere between these two extremes. The result is fresher, better balanced wines that are more likely to enjoy a positive evolution in bottle.

It helps, too, that Washington has enjoyed a favorable recent string of vintages. Many of the new reds I tasted in recent months are from 2007, a vintage most producers are thrilled with. This reasonably warm and even growing season, which avoided serious heat spikes, yielded dense, complex, elegant wines with vibrancy, including many very good whites. Some producers say their 2007s combine the structure and ripeness of the 2005s with the verve of the 2006s, and that the vintage looks to be one of the great ones for Washington. Although the best ’07s I tasted in recent months have the stuffing and balance to be agers, they are often so deep, juicy and attractively fruity now that it’s hard to defer gratification. Many of these wines seem even fresher than the 2006s, and in fact numerous growers reported that these wines have lower pHs and more energy than the previous vintage.

The first half of the 2008 growing season was cooler than usual, and the flowering, budbreak and veraison were up to two weeks later than the norm. But then a very warm August and favorable September weather helped to bring the fruit to near-perfect ripeness, and although the harvest took place from several days to two or three weeks later than that of 2007, the state’s major viticultural areas were lucky enough not to be hit by early frost or fall rains (as the later pickers were in 2009). My early look at the reds suggests that the vintage’s better examples are characterized by very good color, solid backbone, and enticing floral aromatics. Not surprisingly, 2008 appears to be a very good vintage for white wines too. In many cases, alcohol levels, for reds as well as whites, are lower than in recent vintages.

As always, the trickiest category of wines, both for me to score and for consumers to buy, are those that rate in the 87 to 89 point range (i.e., very good but not outstanding). This range includes well-made, nicely balanced and rather refined wines that simply lack the concentration, depth and complexity to merit 90-point ratings. That’s no knock on their quality: in many cases, talented winemakers have done a wonderful job with fruit from very young vines. But this scoring range also includes many other very ripe, overextracted and chunky wines that must be recognized for their sweetness and strength of material, but that come off as a bit heavyhanded and unrefined. Some of these wines get much higher scores in other publications, but I don’t find enough flavor complexity, definition or textural appeal to get overly excited about them. And I doubt that most readers of this publication will either.

Varieties in and out of favor. A sick joke going around Washington State is not a bit funny to many growers. Question: “What’s the difference between syrah and syphilis?” Answer: “At least you can get rid of a case of syphilis.” I should note that many of California’s producers saw their syrahs dead in the marketplace even before the infection spread to Washington. It remains to be seen what will happen to the newest plantings of syrah, especially those that are not in the best sites. There are already instances of producers blending syrah with cabernet, and this trend may continue. The fact that syrah is a tough sell, whether in Washington or California, is a real shame, as there are more superb examples now being produced in both areas than ever before. And in Washington State, a good percentage of them are done in a northern Rhône style that should offer considerable appeal for Francophiles. The best syrahs I tasted in recent months were among the most exciting wines of my tastings.

This year I saw a few new malbec bottlings of interest, but as these wines are not generally in the under-$15 range, they don’t yet represent much of a threat to bottlings from Argentina. The number of grenache bottlings is also on the rise, and some of these are quite intriguing. Meanwhile, the number of really good varietally labeled merlots continues to contract: today they can be counted on the fingers of two hands (a couple that come to mind are examples from Abeja and Woodward Canyon). Bordeaux blends are becoming more and more interesting, with clever winemakers making increasing use of grapes like cabernet franc and petit verdot planted in the right sites, and crafting more complex and complete wines in the process.

All of the following wines were tasted in Washington and in New York in the past four months.