Washington State 2021 and 2020: From the Frying Pan to the Fire


Life as a Washington State winemaker is never dull these days. Over the last decade, a succession of warm vintages has forced vineyard managers and winemakers to rethink their approach. Yet, the overall quality of Washington State wine has never been higher. Wineries continue to open. New vineyards are planted and new AVAs are proposed, all while the state deals with a few of the most challenging vintages ever: the smoke-affected 2020s and now the hottest vintage on record in 2021. Yet when the dust settles and the wines are bottled, Washington State continues to endure. While there are plenty of exceptional wines in the market, collectors should be excited for the 2022s and, most likely, the 2023s.

Looking out across Red Mountian and the Yakima Valley.

This report looks primarily at the newly-released Bordeaux variety wines and a few timely updates from outside the category. To catch up on the Rhône wines, check out my last report, “Rhône’s on the Rise: Washington State Takes the Lead.”

My appreciation for Washington State runs deep. It only grows each time I taste these wines and spend time on the ground with producers. First and foremost, prices have increased, but the cost of a Washington Bordeaux blend remains a tremendous value compared to the likes of California and Sonoma. While some producers have begun to bridge this gap, the amount of world-class wine made in Washington at reasonable prices is astounding. Moreover, beyond the prestige wines, I’m often amazed by the level of quality found in some producers’ entry-level bottlings. Oftentimes, wineries release these offerings under a separate brand just to conserve the value of their primary portfolio. To list a few, in no specific order, Substance (House of Smith), Involuntary Commitment (Andrew Will), Secret Squirrel (Corliss), City Limits (Two Vintners) and M100 (Fidelitas) are all wines that I would welcome at my dinner table any night of the week. 

As for the style, another defining factor of Washington State is its love of blending. These are true Bordeaux blends, relying not just on Cabernet Sauvignon (although you can find many varietal examples) but also on Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and, a personal favorite of mine, Merlot. I know there is still a lot of misguided controversy over the latter, but the fact is that Washington State excels with Merlot. It’s the healthy addition within many blends that not only sets them apart but makes them shine. 

Red Mountain as seen from the Upchurch Vineyard.

However, if Cabernet Sauvignon is your thing, the Red Mountain AVA is a great place to start. Previous tastings led me to spend a good amount of time in Red Mountain this year to better understand better terroir and what sets the wines apart. The qualities of this subregion showed early on in the relatively short modern-day history of Washington State wine. Recognized as of 2001, today, the AVA produces many of the state’s big and structured reds. Expect power, complexity and gripping tannins. Many producers will tell you that Red Mountain, with its southwest-facing vineyards and prolonged exposure to the sun, is one of the few locations in Washington that can promise to bring Cabernet Sauvignon to perfect ripeness in every vintage. Red Mountain is also warmer on average than surrounding AVAs and witnesses drastic temperature dips at night. It’s no wonder that many of the best-known vineyards in Washington are found here. These include Grand Ciel, Ciel du Cheval, Galitzine, Quintessence, Tapteil, WeatherEye and Force Majeure, to name but a few. 

Outside of Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, it’s easy to find a parcel of just about any grape imaginable somewhere within the state, and all are often worth checking out. Land is much more affordable in Washington State than its competition, so expansion and experimentation remain possible. 

Working with the twenty (and growing) AVAs, producers do a fantastic job of communicating terroir, which says a lot for a region that would otherwise resemble a desert if it wasn’t for the irrigation produces can tap into from the Columbia and Yakima Rivers. Moreover, despite the ever-growing heat, diurnal shifts can range from 35 to 47 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the state, which helps maintain balanced acidity in the grapes. Lastly, dry and windy conditions ward off disease throughout the east. All these factors make Washington State an appealing location to create and source wine. The potential for growth and further terroir exploration is enough to excite any wine lover. 

Unfortunately, what producers do need to contend with are growing seasons, and this is where things get very tricky. 

The barrel aging cellar at Cayuse.

Two Extremes: The 2020 and 2021 Vintages

Two thousand twenty-one continues the trend of excessively warm vintages in Washington State, further exacerbated by the well-documented heat dome that descended upon the region in late June. The 2021 vintage was advanced in every way, with early bud break, bloom, veraison and harvest. The year started with a dry winter, giving way to bud break in March, followed by a week of extremely cold, sub-freezing temperatures at night. Hot, dry winds plagued the region through May during flowering. With June came a warming trend, resulting in a period of brutal, record-breaking heat at the end of the month, with temperatures reported as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the Columbia Valley for four days straight. While temperatures did come down, August remained quite warm throughout. 

Continued heat reduced berry and cluster sizes. According to the Washington State Wine Commission, Cabernet Sauvignon was the most affected, with a reduction of 30% in average tonnage harvested. The saving grace was the cooler temperatures that lasted through September and October; this allowed the later ripening red varieties to regain balance. 

If nothing else, this vintage further illustrates the region's ability to use timely irrigation to help balance the conditions of the season, along with techniques such as leaf shading and misters that help balance temperatures. However, in the end, this condensed year resulted in dramatically small yields. Brooke Robertson of Delmas reported losing up to 50% of their production, referring to 2021 as “Bonkers Hot.” Ben Smith of Cadence echoed Robertson’s experiences from his vineyard on Red Mountain, saying, “It was the hottest vintage on record, started warm and stayed warm. We used a lot of water,” yet went on to add, “I was a little worried about tough tannins, but in the end, I’m happy with what we have.” Overall, I agree. Acidity was retained as well, likely the result of Washington State’s significant diurnal shifts. The majority of 2021s I’ve tasted, while showing some warm vintage character and opulent in feel, come across as beautifully balanced. Just looking at some of the top wines from Quilceda Creek, Liminal, Betz Family Winery, Delmas, Kobayashi, Quilceda Creek and Matthews proves my point. 

The fermentation cellar at Corliss in Walla Walla.

However, there is an issue with consistency. This will not be a year to buy blindly because while many of the best producers culled magic from this arid year, others presented wines that lack complexity and typicity. 

I wish I could report that it’s time to put the 2020s behind us, but the reality is that my recent tastings were heavily populated with wines from this vintage, as they remain the current releases of the region from many producers. The good news is that the effect of smoke taint in the region is much lower than what I’ve witnessed in California and especially Oregon. The bad news is that, while less of an issue, it remains a serious mark on the vintage. I covered much of this in last year’s report, “Against All Odds: Washington State’s 2020s and 2019s.”

To summarize: wildfires that spread across the western seaboard smoked out the Columbia Valley to the point of delaying ripening through September and, in many cases, imparted smoke taint into the wines. Some producers made the tough decision to declassify and bulk out their juice. The most notable was the Betz Family Winery, which went on record early, announcing that they wouldn’t be bottling any wine. Others went parcel by parcel during fermentation, choosing to dump one lot while saving another. Surprisingly, some lots would show drastic taint levels versus others not showing any at all–yet often from very similar locations. Time on the skins was often shortened, along with excluding stems from fermentations. Chemical testing was used extensively, exhaustive tasting and blending seasons ensued, and in some cases, producers even used filters. Sadly, less scrupulous wineries bottled wines that should never have seen the light of day. 

The Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla.

However, with all that said, the 2020 vintage has turned out better than expected and is not without its highlights. In fact, there are quite a few wines that stand out in a very big way. I’m a fan of buying the producer, not the vintage. I think that applies here, with possibly a few exceptions. It was not uncommon while visiting the who’s who that producers would sit with me throughout the entire tasting, only to end the meeting with the question: “So, did you find any smoke?” On nearly every occasion, I did not; yet, in most cases, the wines are the result of severe selection on the producer's part.. The likes of Cayuse Vineyards, Quilceda Creek, Force Majeure, Upchurch Vineyard, Figgins, Cadence and many more have released wines that I highly recommend. Are they the best wines these producers have ever made? No. But they are fantastic interpretations of producer, time and place.

This brings me to one viewpoint I’ve found interesting, considering that the vintage was far less affected as a whole than initially feared, which is that smoke could be regarded as part of the terroir of the season. To be clear, this is not referring to smoke taint but to the changes in the ripening cycle and harvest dates. Outside of the absolute top performers, the 2020s certainly have a distinct personality. They are aromatic, floral and lifted on the nose, with vivid fruit character, yet soft and supple, lacking presence on the mid-palate. In the best cases, the tannins are well-integrated and backed by a remnant of primary components. In the worst cases, they can be a bit bitter with angular contours. The problem with smoke taint in wines is that it’s sporadic and difficult to fully detect if it’s not apparent on the nose and palate. Moreover, it can begin to show in a wine years after bottling. As a general rule of thumb, many producers urge their customers to consider drinking most wines earlier than usual. 

The wines for this article were tasted both in Washington and at our offices in New York during the fall of 2023.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Rhônes on the Rise: Washington State Takes the Lead, Eric Guido, August 2023

Against All Odds: Washington State’s 2020s and 2019s, Eric Guido, March 2023