Top New Releases from Washington State

If you're an inveterate Francophile when it comes to structured red wines and have always been skeptical of those upstarts in Washington State, the 2008 vintage offers a perfect opportunity to give these wines a shot. And if you're a long-time fan of Washington's wines, you'll want a healthy allotment of these wines in your cellar.  The 2008 growing season produced more outstanding wines in Washington State than ever before, and many of the better wines are already disappearing from the marketplace.

By the way, the 2008s have turned out even better--and more consistent--than I suggested last year.  In a region that is vulnerable to weather extremes, particularly extended heat spikes during the summer, 2008 featured a long, moderate growing season with a late harvest, allowing for long hang time, relaxed harvesting, and sound levels of natural acidity, without excessive alcohol levels or widespread raisining of the berries.  That's about the best formula Washington's grape growers could ask for.

Not surprisingly, 2008 has produced wines with a rare combination of aromatic complexity, flavor intensity, definition and vibrancy.  In fact, this year's report features a number of wineries that have not previously made it into the pages of the IWC, and in the majority of cases it's their 2008s that put them on our map.  Where previously their wines were solidly made but chunky and unrefined, their 2008s show an added measure of perfume, delineation and nuance.  Much of that extra class is a function of the quality of the vintage, but these producers are also on a steep learning curve.  And of course the vines they work with, often quite young, are steadily maturing.  Many of my perennial favorite producers have made 2008s that rank with, or surpass, their finest work to date.

The 2008 growing season began with a very cool spring, and the flowering was a good two weeks behind the recent average.  Temperatures remained mild through much of the summer and many growers wondered if their fruit would ripen.  Acid levels in the grapes remained high.  But a long Indian summer beginning in late September allowed growers to let their fruit hang long for fuller maturity, and those who picked ripe fruit made mostly medium-bodied wines with uncommon complexity, redolent of flowers, minerals and soil tones.  This is a splendid vintage for merlot in eastern Washington, and the syrahs are also generally quite strong.  Late-ripening varieties like cabernet sauvignon were potentially more problematic but benefited tremendously from longer hang time.  Although many 2008s are already showing beautifully owing to their aromatic complexity and verve, this vintage appears to have the balance, and guts, not to mention the acidity and tannin structure, to support a slow and graceful evolution in bottle.  The better reds from Bordeaux varieties and syrah really merit cellaring.

Vintage 2009 also began with a very cool spring and a late flowering, but the summer was hot, resulting in a much earlier harvest and a more compressed growing season.  Temperatures moderated in September but there was another heat spike in the second half of the month, when many growers were already harvesting. The upside to the very warm summer weather was that fruit from most of the best sites was in by the time of a sharp frost on October 10; after that, the vines in many sites lost their leaves, which essentially ended flavor development.  According to insiders, some not-quite-ripe cabernet was rushed in ahead of the widely forecasted cold spell.

Many very ripe and delicious wines were made in 2009 from thick-skinned, concentrated grapes, but they do not generally offer the complexity or sharp detail of the better 2008s. The wines tend to have a more exotic fruit character than the 2008s.  Cabernet often did very well, as it retained adequate acidity, but even some of Washington's best producers of merlot admitted that this variety was affected by the summer heat and then struggled to ripen in September.  On their own the better 2009s can be extremely satisfying, but where I had the chance to taste them next to their 2008 siblings, it was the 2008s that showed new facets with every sip.  And it was the 2008s that appealed more to the European wine lover in me.

It's too early to comment on the 2010 reds, but this was a very cool year with a late harvest.  Budbreak was early, but then the April through June period was the coolest in decades.  The summer remained cooler than average and in some sites the veraison did not take place until the second week of September. Dropping crop was often critical to ripening the fruit that remained, and aerating the vines helped to alleviate mildew pressures that arose due to a much wetter-than-normal May through July period in eastern Washington.  September featured some warm spells, but then October was cool again and the harvest was long and late. 

The challenge, of course, was to get the fruit ripe.  Not surprisingly, white wines from 2010 can be quite fresh.  Reds will be a mixed bag, with the vintage's successes showing pungent, very pure red berry flavors, healthy acidity levels and lower-than-normal alcohol.  But again, as with 2008, 2010 may be a vintage that yields pleasant surprises as the reds evolve in barrel.