Washington Waltzes in 2018, Slowly Marches on in 2019


Tasting Through a Pandemic

Despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, I brought my vaccinated palate to a seemingly endless number of Washington wineries in 2021, making five trips to Walla Walla and stopping everywhere along the way. I tasted many other wines in my Seattle-area office under my preferred tasting conditions: using varietal-specific stemware. I was fortunate to have wines sent to my office throughout the year, so I had a good amount of time to sit with them and examine them even 24 hours later. Many phone calls and in-person visits helped me understand the relatively tricky, producer-driven years of 2019 and 2020.

As Stephen Tanzer noted in his last Washington report, I found very few wines to be cork-contaminated or technically unsound, as many producers have moved to DIAM corks that are nearly TCA-free. For vintages 2018 and 2019, I encountered few smoke-tarnished wines, and there were only slightly more among the 2020 white wines. I particularly noticed occasional smoke influence in rosé wines.

2018 Holding Steady as One of Washington’s Great Vintages

After tasting more than a thousand wines from 2018, I’m certain that 2018 is one of the great vintages of our time in Washington State, and this is true for red and white varieties alike. I tasted some producers’ wines up to four separate times over the year, and I was blown away by the consistent quality. Whereas white wines might have fared slightly better in 2017 and red wines slightly better in 2016, vintage 2018 saw both flourish. The 2018 white wines show slightly more fleshy character than those made in 2017 and 2019, and they resemble the 2016 whites but with a greater veil of tension. The best 2018 red wines are thrilling. They are big, bold Bordeaux- and Rhône-style wines with plenty of bright acidity to back up their core of fruit. The 2018 reds’ aromatics are generally shockingly good, rivaling any top vintage and reminding me a bit of the best 2002s and 2005s; they also offer better flavor range than the 2019s. There is an absence of pyrazines in 2018 red wines (unlike some examples from 2017 and 2019).

Indeed, I found very few poorly made 2018 wines. Winemaker Elizabeth Bourcier fondly recalled the vintage as having “truly the nicest September and October we had ever seen, with perfect day and night temperatures.” As they dealt with quite a condensed harvest, similar to 2015 and 2021, they “worked hard to bring fruit in at an even pace as to not have anything overripe.” Similarly, Josh McDaniels knew “it was going to be a special year when the fruit was in the fermenters. The resulting wines also had everything and were uber-balanced. They possess richness without being too tannic, and they show deep color. The ultimate in elegance is what brought 2018 to the forefront.”

If you prefer red wines with brighter acidity and less fruit character, look more to 2017, and even 2019 to a lesser extent. For a bolder flavor profile with even greater flavor range, 2018 delivers. According to vigneron Christophe Baron, 2019 “was a vintage that separated the men from the boys. The results, however, were worth the hard work. The wines are focused, opulent, and have a great energy.” Kerry Shiels said that 2019’s “mild summer and cool fall meant flavors and phenolics developed with less sugar accumulation, resulting in wines with structure and flavor at lower alcohols.”

The famed Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA where Quilceda Creek harvests their Cabernet Sauvignon.

2019: The Growing Season & Wines

If the 2018 vintage was ideal from start to finish, 2019 was not nearly as easy, especially at the end, when Bordeaux varieties suffered an early October frost and then a harder freeze one week later. Washington Bordeaux grapes count on hang time in October, and for many producers, the frost meant picking was earlier than anticipated, and the fruit was in less-than-ideal condition. Some struggled to achieve full phenolic ripeness, while others were able to craft dense, layered Bordeaux-style wines without pyrazine qualities. (A touch of greenness can enhance a wine, but there are times when it can be too overt or off-putting. You quite simply don’t want the obtrusive greenness in Washington Bordeaux that you see in many lower-quality Left Bank Bordeaux wines.) But where some 2019 reds struggled with consistency, the 2019 whites did not face the same challenges, and they show bright acidity and great flavor density across the board. The 2019 vintage is shaping up to be a year where top producers shone brightly; the white wines are more consistently fine overall than the red wines.

2020: Expect Consistency Issues

After an astonishing run of good vintages, Washington vintners held their breath in 2020 as wildfires raged from southern California to central British Columbia. Up until August, 2020 looked likely to be similar in overall quality to 2018. Ideal warmth throughout the growing season had vintners excited about the harvest. Spring offered moderate temperatures, and a lack of winter snows created a May bloom. In June, cooler temperatures alongside rain caused yields to be lower than most vintages. Growing-degree days were on par with 2015, although 2020 did not see the same number of 100-degree days as 2015. There was more consistent warm weather and a limited wildfire season, with only several fast-burning range fires in eastern Washington near Yakima and Mattawa.

Later in August, hot temperatures fueled major fires near Pullman that had a significant smoke impact on eastern Washington. Early September brought a high-pressure system across the Columbia Valley and into Walla Walla. Even in Seattle, ash fell, and campfire smells and poor air quality engulfed the entire state. There were even more unhealthy conditions across Oregon as wildfires expanded. Driving back from Napa, my trip home to Seattle was delayed because of the wildfires that closed Interstate 5 in southern Oregon. Between September 12 and September 17, smoke levels grew even higher; some scientists have noted that conditions in 2017 and 2018 do not nearly compare to those of 2020. The smoke moved out by September 21, but the damage had been done for many grape growers. There was now the question of whether to pick Bordeaux varietals or to bulk out their fruit.

Viewing a new high elevation vineyard location in the North Fork of the Walla Walla River (Walla Walla Valley AVA) with Todd Alexander of Force Majeure Vineyards.

I was surprised by the variety of responses regarding smoke influence in 2020, which ranged from a non-issue to a complete catastrophe.

Louis Skinner, of Betz Family Winery fame, elected not to make any wines in 2020 because of the smoke. On the other hand, Josh McDaniels loves the 2020 growing season in Walla Walla, which he recalled as “tremendous.” McDaniels explained that “warm, dry conditions led us to begin picking seven to ten days earlier than in 2019. The scary moment of this vintage was the beginning of September, when wildfires up and down the West Coast held strong and I saw the most dense smoke of my career in Walla Walla.” Despite the smoke scare, McDaniels noted that his 2020 wines “are rich, saturated and have tannin profiles that remind me a bit of 2014 or even 2010.”

Steve Robertson of Delmas conversely mentioned that a combination of smoke and very warm temperatures was problematic for him in 2020. “Heavy smoke arrived in September, which was a regional harvest concern, particularly for varieties harvested later in the season. The other, more persistent, concern was a growing season peppered with extreme heat days, 28 days being over 95 degrees, 11 days over 100 and five days over 105."

Winemaker Kerry Shiels of Côte Bonneville voiced optimism from her site in the Yakima Valley. “While many growing regions were challenged with fires, Yakima had some of the best air quality conditions on the West Coast,” said Shiels. “We were extremely grateful for the years of research and collaboration with Tom Collins at WSU to be confident that any impact from the California and Oregon fires was minimal. Harvest began at the usual time, with Chardonnay being picked on September 11 for Côte Bonneville. Low yields and a warm September meant we finished early.” In terms of varieties influenced by the fires, many winemakers have pointed to Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot as well as Syrah being the most affected. Smoke taint triggers a very complex transformation in the barrel and also in the bottle. Unbelievably, smoke taint can come into play years after bottling, so some producers chose to make wines for slightly earlier consumption — a trend in most new world wine regions.

Tasting the latest new releases by Kerloo winemaker Ryan Crane.

Production Down, Prices Up in 2020

If 2019 wine production was low, 2020 was even lower, down more than 10% from the previous year. Cabernet Sauvignon was the most produced variety, at 29% of the total. Because less wine was made, grapes averaged $1,495 per ton for all varieties in 2020, an increase of $180 over the previous year. Washington may not be best known for Cabernet Franc, but intriguingly enough, that variety fetched the highest average price per ton, at $2,167. In what may be an increasing trend, Pinot Noir saw the most significant percentage increase in price, up 51% from 2019, while Cabernet Sauvignon reflected the highest dollar increase, up $388 per ton from 2019, pushing the average price per ton over $2,000 for the first time. As thin-skinned Pinot Noir can be more impacted by smoke than Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, it will be particularly intriguing to see where this trend goes in upcoming years.

2021 Is Showing Early Potential

Producers have been glowing about the warm 2021 vintage. Unlike the smoke conditions of 2020 or the early freeze of 2019, 2021 did not bring major environmental challenges. Harvest conditions were near perfect for Bordeaux varietals, with some late October rains and moderate temperatures making things a relative breeze. Winemakers are also pleased with the overall quality of their white wines.

This was a quick, condensed harvest for many producers, while Bordeaux producers like Quilceda Creek harvested a bit later than others. Advanced sommelier Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of W.T. Vintners, who crafts highly balanced and food-friendly wines, noted that 2021 was not quite as easy for him and described the vintage as “a mind-bending roller coaster.” He explained that with wet conditions and challenges during bud break and “then heat domes, fires (meaning more smoke risks) and a long summer for early pickers like us, everything was compacted.”

Logistics issues of moving fruit have recently been a major problem for Washington vintners, and as Lindsay-Thorsen noted, “Yields were light, but the fruit looked fantastic almost everywhere. For us, Syrah came in fast as we tried to dodge the persistent heat of late summer and excessive sugars. But in some vineyards, flavors were slow to develop,” which he thinks may create some higher-alcohol wines. Lindsay-Thorsen noticed “unusually small berry size” and observed that “tannin management was a rare consideration for us this year. We usually let it ride, respecting the vintage, but this year we felt we needed an extremely gentle touch during fermentation due to skin-to-juice ratios.”

Tasting the 2019 releases with Sager and Jordan Small, the new generation at Woodward Canyon.

Mother Nature Remains a Challenge

For grape growers across Washington State, smoke and heat spikes will remain a major unresolved issue. Wildfires across the West Coast show no signs of slowing down, although 2021 might have inflicted considerably less smoke damage on vineyards than 2020. The Pacific Northwest has even seen an influx of winemakers relocating from California to escape the wildfires that have ravaged their regions. For those growing grapes in warm climates like Red Mountain, the challenge will be to create wines that have high alcohol but also good phenolic ripeness. As temperatures surpass 100 degrees, the plants shut down, meaning that grapes do not mature. This becomes a problem in years like 2015, when harvest was extremely early, and many grapes were ripe with high sugar accumulation but had not developed proper flavor complexity.

In the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, the stones produce a heating effect, creating air temperatures that can easily surpass 130 degrees. Canopy management and sunburn prevention are pivotal here, but increasing temperatures may eventually lead to over ripeness in Grenache and Syrah, making it very difficult to produce high-quality white wine varietals that possess both bright acidity and flavor complexity. At their best, Rocks District of Milton-Freewater wines show impeccable balance and ripeness – an achievement evident in the 2018 Cayuse Syrahs, where Christophe Baron and Elizabeth Bourcier deftly mitigated hot temperatures and a compressed harvest, crafting deeply concentrated and complex wines with plenty of bright acidity.

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