The Best New Wines from Washington State

Wine lovers who stopped following Washington's wines may hardly recognize what the state is up to these days.  Barely ten years ago Washington was about cabernet, merlot and inexpensive riesling, with some chardonnay thrown in for good measure.  Today, those four grape varieties still dominate the state's production, with each accounting for around 19% of the state's total, but syrah is a rising star and talented winemakers are producing excellent wines from a staggering range of other varieties, beginning but not ending with viognier, roussanne, marsanne, semillon, grenache blanc and even gruner veltliner among whites and red grapes like grenache, petit verdot, malbec, mourvedre and tempranillo.

In my comprehensive annual tastings in July in Washington and in recent weeks in New York, I found outstanding examples of virtually all of these varieties, not to mention a host of fascinating blends.  It's hard to avoid thinking that Washington's high desert, with its abundant sunshine, wide diurnal temperature swings, and absence of vine disease isn't a remarkably favored place for grape-growing:  just add water!

This year I found more outstanding new releases from Washington than ever before, due in large part to the quality of recent vintages, to better and better vineyard work by owners of the more favored sites, and to a sharp learning curve among the state's new producers and younger winemakers.

Wine lovers with a European bent can feast on unusually juicy and aromatic wines from the cool and cooler 2010 and 2011 growing seasons.  Two thousand ten in particular yielded wines with atypical energy and clarity of flavor, density without grittiness of texture, and the backbone to support positive evolution in bottle.  Now that virtually all of the 2010s are in the marketplace, I can report that I have tasted more stellar wines from this vintage than from any past year.  Many wineries have made their best wines ever, while others whose releases have routinely been lost in the pack in my annual tastings flagged my attention this time.  The downside to 2010 is that some wines are a bit skinny--or even peppery and green--where growers picked too early or tried to ripen too heavy a crop load.  (For more detail on the 2010 growing season, please refer to my introduction to Washington in Issue 165.)

The better 2010s show the density, energy and ripe tannins of a cool growing season that benefited from extended hang time.  Cool nights in the weeks prior to the harvest helped to preserve acidity in the grapes.  As Christophe Baron of Cayuse succinctly put it:  "The 2010s have precision, energy, fragrance, lightness."

Two thousand eleven was even cooler.  According to Kevin White, who established his eponymous winery in 2010, the spring was cool virtually until July 1, and the flowering toward the end of June was late.  "Then we had 60% of our total heat units in the nine weeks between July 27 and October 1, followed by almost no heat units after Oct. 1.  Nothing was happening during those last weeks:  in the end, we got good phenolic ripeness with low sugars, low pHs and high acids."  Fortunately, the cool fall remained dry.  Jon Meuret of Maison Bleue told me he picked into late November (!) but still got lower alcohol levels than in 2010.  "Our 2011s were one degree Brix lower than the 2010s across the board," said Ben Smith of Cadence.  Some vineyards in cooler areas, such as the Columbia Gorge, struggled to ripen their fruit.  The vintage would have been far more difficult had crop levels been high.

If some wines are not as dense as those of the previous year, they are equally juicy.  As in 2010, the wines show red fruit flavors--not to mention good floral lift--that add another dimension of freshness to the blacker fruits that characterize the hotter years.  The size of the crop was low in 2011, especially so for cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla Valley, largely due to the residual effects of a sharp frost in late November of 2010 and to cool, wet weather in June of '11 that affected bud development.  The total Washington harvest was 18% lower in 2011 than in 2010, according to eminence grise Bob Betz.  Some frost at the end of October of 2011 essentially ended the harvest in some low-lying vineyards in Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and the Wahluke Slope.

Two thousand twelve brought a return to normal weather in the eastern half of Washington State, not to mention a generous crop, with warm and dry conditions through much of July and August and excellent harvest weather in September and October (the harvest mostly occurred between mid-September and late October).  Some growers compare the year to 2008.  "The season was a lot warmer and more consistent than 2011 and 2010, a bit like 2008 in that there was nothing too extreme," noted Kevin White, adding, "There was a normal flowering, a typical progression of warm to hot, and a normal harvest.  But we had warm nights in 2012 so the level of malic acidity was lower."  "It was a good average growing season," said Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan.  "We did not have to dodge rain in early September, like in 2010 and 2011."

Washington's important red wines from this vintage will not hit the market for another year or so, but the white wines already show the promise of this vintage, even if they are generally higher in alcohol, more pliant and less precise than wines from the previous two vintages.

As in past years, I would like to point out that many wines in this year's coverage earned scores in the 88 range, but these wines run a wide gamut of styles.  Some are from wineries with no pretensions to making "serious" wines, but are harmonious, fresh and nicely balanced--and particularly attractive when they are reasonably priced.  Others are more ambitious wines that just miss, owing to lack of refinement or to their too-muchness:  of new oak, ripeness, tannins or extraction.  But the good news this year is the greater-than-ever number of wines that merit 90 points.