Washington Turns Up the Heat

Global warming notwithstanding, it was only a few years ago that growers in eastern Washington’s high desert must have thought the next ice age was starting. The 2010 growing season was a consistently cool one that produced wines in a distinctly European style. Then came 2011, which was downright glacial by eastern Washington standards, the coldest in decades.

Two thousand twelve brought a return to normal—not too hot, not too cold . . .  just right. This “perfectly average vintage,” as a number of growers described it, was also Washington’s easiest in many years, both in the vineyards and in the wineries. As my extensive further tastings of 2012s in recent months make clear, this is a consistently excellent and often spectacular vintage for Washington, having produced a greater number of outstanding, silky wines with a full range of aromatic qualities and suave tannins than any past year.

Washington State AVA Map courtesy of Washington State Wine. Click for high resolution version

The Heat Returns

The mini ice age eventually melted away and would soon be just a memory. Heat returned in 2013, a year that actually began with a cool, late spring and tardy flowering, but then turned blistering in late July and August. In the end, the vintage was saved by a sustained cool-down in September and early October that allowed growers to let their fruit hang for full phenolic ripeness at moderate levels of potential alcohol—and often with healthy acidity.

Two thousand fourteen was then a consistently hot growing season virtually wall to wall, the warmest to date for most growing areas in eastern Washington. And somehow, the thermostat was turned up yet another notch in 2015. Having spent time in eastern Washington in both mid-June and late July this year, I can assure you that conditions were sauna-like.

For those of you keeping score at home, here’s a quick update of a vintage recap I offered on this website a year ago:

2010:  Cool

2011:  Very cool (downright cold by Washington standards)

2012:  Perfectly average, classic

2013:  Very warm

2014:  Seriously hot (record total degree days)

2015:  Set the controls for the heart of the sun (all heat records shattered)

A view of the Blue Mountains

But Here’s The Amazing Thing

Against all expectations, Washington’s better producers—and that list gets longer every year—have made consistently excellent wines through the entire period, under the widest possible range of temperature conditions. Of even greater interest to consumers is the fact that the distinct characteristics of these very different vintages often come through in the wines. It’s a truism that hot, dry wine-growing areas generally display far less vintage variation than so-called marginal growing regions where the fruit can struggle to ripen; and yet the string of vintages from 2010 through at least 2014 show markedly different character. What’s even more astonishing is that the terroir character we have come to expect from certain favored sites has been coming through loud and clear under such a wide range of conditions: the cold years haven’t lacked the ripeness to communicate soil character while in the hot ones the typical aromatic qualities of the better sites and microclimates have somehow made it into the bottle. This would not have been the case even a decade ago. 

The reasons for this are manifold; let me list just a few: The discovery and planting of outstanding new sites—and more appropriate varieties and clones—at higher altitudes and with cooler expositions. Far more sophisticated and more flexible viticultural work by the owners of many of the state’s best vineyards, with significant input from the most important and intelligent winemaker clients for their fruit. Much greater precision in harvesting, with a general tendency toward earlier picking. And, of course, countless improvements in vinification, élevage and bottling. To cite just one example: Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellars and FIGGINS, in order “to preserve the tension in his fruit,” has been doing less vertical shoot positioning, putting in cross arms instead to get “a broader angle to the sun—more light exposure on every berry while preventing sunburn.”

A view of Walla Walla Valley from Seven Hills Vineyard

Recent Progress Has Been Mindboggling

While the Washington wine industry is still in its infancy compared to growing regions in the Old World, the progress achieved just since the turn of the new century is astonishing. Brennon Leighton, who makes the superb Sixto Chardonnays under the Charles Smith umbrella as well as his own B. Leighton wines, provided a concise overview of recent changes in Washington state: “In Washington, we’re figuring out that we have our own unique climate, soils and viticultural style. For years, a lot of wineries here brought in consultants from France or California, but that didn’t necessarily work. In the ’90s and ’00s we adopted a lot of California viticultural techniques, including pulling leaves and deficit irrigation, but those steps often resulted in high Brix levels, low acidity and one-dimensional flavors.  We were ruining our fruit.” He went on: “In 2015, we kept our canopies a bit more lively, to extend the ripening of the fruit into the cooler part of the season. We used more water to put more energy into the canopies, which slowed down the maturing of the fruit and extended the growing season by allowing the vines essentially to hibernate through the hot days. You know, UC/Davis degree days never really tell the whole story of a growing season.”

Fractured basalt under the Ferguson Vineyard

2013 And 2014: Hot and Hotter

Most of the growers I visited this summer or spoke to in recent weeks agreed that while 2014 was a hotter growing season overall than 2013 (i.e., significantly higher in total degree days), the heat in 2014 began earlier and never let up. Thus the vines were better acclimated to the very warm conditions and were more able to adapt than they had been in 2013, when the heat started later and extreme heat spikes in July and August were potentially more damaging.

David O’Reilly explained on his Owen Roe website that 2013, in general, was one of the hottest growing years in the Yakima Valley.  “We had many summer days with temperatures pushing the mid-’90s. This lingering heat lasted until late August when the weather switched to unseasonably cooler temperatures for the remainder of harvest.  Because of this, our earlier-ripening fruit (Merlot and Syrah) showed warmer climate characteristics. The later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon had the advantage of slowly accumulating sugars, flavor and color over a several-week period prior to harvest.” More recently, O'Reilly told me that 2014 was less of a challenge than 2013, “as the high temperatures were less extreme—but it was still necessary to harvest early.” He started picking his Chardonnay on August 28, the earliest ever, until this year.

The biggest difference between 2014 and 2013, according to Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars, was in the timing of phenolic ripeness. “In 2013 we had to wait as acids dropped, while in 2014 (and in 2015) we had sufficient phenolic ripeness to pick much earlier than usual—especially with our Rhône varieties. Many of our blocks in 2013 had alcohol levels comparable to 2010, especially Syrah. I feel that even though 2014 was hotter, we were able to avoid the overripe roasted flavors that showed in vintages like 2009.”

For statistics buffs: Billo Naravane, who owns Rasa Vineyards with his brother Pinto and also makes the Mackey, Echo Ridge and Delmas wines, noted that total heat units in Walla Walla were 3,050 in 2013 (vs. an average of 2,850) and 3,300 in 2014, but pointed out that the heat was more even and the bud break was earlier in ’14. (And on October 30, with one day to go before the official end of the season, he told me that the total for 2015 was 3,433.) Naravan noted that under such hot conditions, “winemakers who follow a formula to make their wines are really struggling. But for the better wineries you can line up 2012, 2013 and 2014 and really see the vintage character of each year. That’s because of all the decisions we made in the vineyards and at harvest. For example, for the heat spikes of 2013, we reduced the canopy by cutting leaves strategically—that is, we left the foliage denser in the fruiting zone to protect the grapes against sunburn but topped the canopy differently in order to have 20% to 25% fewer leaves than usual and thus less sugar production.”

The ongoing shift toward organic and even biodynamic farming is also enabling many vineyard owners to get ripe fruit at more moderate alcohol levels than in the past, and with better retention of acidity. Christophe Baron, whose Syrahs at Cayuse routinely carried octane levels in the high 14s and low 15s through much of the first decade of the new century, told me that his vineyards have been coming into sync over the last four years thanks to biodynamic farming. “Even in 2015 our Grenache isn’t above 14%, and our Syrahs are between 13.5% and 13.9%. We could leave the fruit on the vines for another two weeks and we’d barely get another half degree of sugar. Today we’re getting better-balanced wines from similar yields.” He also told me he’s leaving more canopy as a “sun screen” and that he hasn’t done much leaf-pulling since 2011. “I used to look for a little more superripeness and flesh, but now when I taste I want something firm.  It’s all about the tension and energy in the wines.” He added that as recently as the cool 2010 vintage, some of his Syrahs reached 15%.

Vines in the Rocks district

There’s Heat, and Then There’s Heat

Chris Figgins noted that there were about 13 days with temperatures at or above 100 degrees in Walla Walla in 2014. Although it was the overall warmest vintage of his career (until 2015, when, for the first time ever, he started picking in late August), he felt it was nowhere near as extreme as 1998, which had over 20 such days. In fact, he considers 1998 and 2009 his two hottest vintages to date. “Two thousand nine was hot but we had a lot of water in the winter and spring, so we had a big crop and large canopies. So the sugar levels were way ahead of actual fruit ripeness [as so much of the vines’ energy went into growing leaves]. But during the most recent three years, and especially in 2015, which was a drought year, the vines slowed down and put their energy into the grapes.

According to Chris Peterson, who was responsible for a superb string of vintages at DeLille Cellars and now makes wines under his own Avennia Cellars and, more recently, Trouvé labels, “2013 had intense 100+-degree days for extended periods during the summer, while 2014 is more like 2012 on steroids.” The days in 2014 were unrelentingly warm, he added, and everything ripened at a record pace. “I feared that the wines would be too fruit-forward for our style and maybe lack a little complexity, much like previous hot years such as 2003 and 2009. But in fact, even though the wines are large-scaled, they are also quite complex and structured. It looks to be a classic vintage, which gives me great hope for the unbelievably hot and early-ripening 2015 vintage.” And Peterson is increasingly confident that he can pick “right at that front edge of ripeness: I’m really trying to get fresher, more complex, less jammy flavors in the very warm years.” This is a sentiment I heard from nearly all of the most talented Washington winemakers I saw this summer.

A Final Word on 2012

Having now tasted virtually all of the best wines from this vintage, I can say that 2012 is a splendid year for Washington wine. The growing season was as close to perfectly average as a vintage can be: free of extremes, long on sunshine, typically warm but not hot, and with a leisurely harvest of grapes possessing sound, ripe acidity and solid but not excessive grape sugars. The wines show an ideal combination of expressive, fresh aromas; supple, fleshy texture and noteworthy sweetness of fruit; and ripe, smooth tannins. Even wineries that typically produce reasonably concentrated and ripe but chunky, inelegant reds were more likely than ever before to have bottled wines with refinement, fruit purity and complexity and overall balance. The wines will not injure your teeth if you taste them young but they have the stuffing and equilibrium to age well. It is a vintage to buy with confidence.

The wines in this article were tasted during two visits to Washington this summer and in recent weeks chez moi in New York.

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 -- Stephen Tanzer