We recently attended an enthralling GuildSomm (Guild of Sommeliers) master class hosted by the organization's chief instructor, Master Sommelier Christopher Tanghe, showcasing the wines of his adopted home state, Washington.
First, some brief insight into how Washington has emerged as one of the preeminent winemaking regions of the world, producing high-quality wines spanning a spectrum of flavors and textures, in a relatively short period of time:
Washington’s dynamic growth skyrocketed in the latter twentieth century — from no AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and only a handful of wineries in the 1960s to three AVAs and 19 wineries in 1985 to 14 AVAs and more than 900(!) wineries today. The Columbia Valley AVA is the largest appellation in the state, encompassing 11 of its 13 recognized AVAs, and extending all the way to Idaho in the east and Oregon to the south.
According to Chris Stone, vice president of marketing and communications for Washington State Wines, about one winery has opened every week in Washington for the past 12 years. The wine industry there is now a $2 billion-plus business. It's no wonder: The state offers financial approachability (vineyard land can cost as little as one-tenth of that in California); a northerly latitude and wide diurnal temperature shift that provide the indispensable sunlight for long, even ripening; crisp, cool nights that ensure grapes retain their vibrant acidity; the moderating effects of the rain shadow (dry stretch) on the leeward side of the Cascade Mountains; and overall arid conditions in winegrowing areas that allow for sustainable practices, as there is little or no risk of fungal infections.
Hazards such as winter freeze and frost, prevalent in continental climates — like those in parts of this state, as well as those of Champagne, Burgundy, and Canada's wine regions — are typically mitigated by canopy management (high-wire training, delayed winter pruning), site selection, and fans or windmills in the vineyards. Combating excessive heat, on the other hand, is a serious concern in Washington (climate change is real — a hot topic that merits an article of its own).
With nearly 70 varietals of commercially viable plantings, the shining stars of Washington wine are cabernet sauvignon (the king), followed by merlot, chardonnay, riesling, syrah, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, cabernet franc, malbec, gewürztraminer, viognier, sangiovese, grenache noir, petit verdot, pinot noir, and sémillon — producing wines in styles from classic to eclectic, usually at wallet-friendly prices. Then there's mourvèdre (known as monastrell in Spain and sometimes mataró in Australia and the U.S.), which typically takes a supporting role in the rich wines of southern Rhône (including Châteauneuf-du-Pape), and was resurrected in 1980s in California by the original "Rhône Rangers," including Bob Lindquist of Qupé winery and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. A late-budding and late-ripening grape, mourvèdre has settled beautifully into Washington’s continental climate.
Seduced by the sexy siren syrah, Greg Harrington became, at 26, the youngest person to achieve the coveted title of Master Sommelier, and went on to become founder and winemaker for the boutique winery Gramercy Cellars in 2005. Here, he earned the title of Best New Winemaker in Washington for 2008 from Seattle Magazine, which also named Gramercy the state's best new winery for that year; two years later, Food & Wine hailed it as best new winery in America. (To learn more about Harrington, listen to Levi Dalton’s in-depth interview with him from the I'll Drink to That podcast. Made with fruit sourced from some of the most exalted vineyards in the state, Gramercy's L'Idiot du Village Mourvèdre 2014 ($42) boasted red berries, perfume, and crunchy texture; it was a serious effort with delicious potential.
The world deserves more cabernet franc, period. It beats me why the parent of super-star cabernet sauvignon receives so little love. Luckily for those who dig the grape's tantalizing pepper and herbal nuances, there is Chris Camadara — fellow lover of the grape and founder/winemaker at Andrew Will Winery. The winery's budget-friendly Cabernet Franc 2015 ($39), sourced from the Columbia Valley, was singing with succulent berries, savory herbs, and softly-scented sweet spices, and held together with fantastic concentration and a lingering finish. Bellissimo!!
One of the rewarding aspects of the wine writer's occupation is discovering new wine concepts, new vineyards, and incredible new flavors. Unashamed, I confess that, until my Washington tastings, I was clueless about the existence of the white grape, native to the Loire Valley, called madeleine angevine. Typically consumed as a table grape, it is fittingly cultivated by the matriach of Bainbridge Island’s EduCulture project, horticulturist Betsy Wittick, who also operates the Laughing Crow Farm and Bainbridge Vineyards. With delicate floral notes dancing in the glass with lively acid, that winery's Madeleine Angevine 2015 ($18) calls for a bowl of lip-smacking Peruvian ceviche or pristine slices of sashimi.
From the biodynamic winery of husband-and-wife duo Poppy and James Mantone, the 2016 Syncline Grüner Veltliner ($24), from Columbia Gorge, is hand harvested, with native yeast fermentation in a combination of concrete egg (Celilo), acacia barrels (Underwood Mountain), and neutral oak barrels (Bloxom). Fresh citrus fruit notes (grapefruit, lime), lifted sage aromas, and white pepper shine through, finishing with a beeswax character attributable to a richer mouthfeel and vibrant acidity. An admirable effort, especially for a wine from a young New World region.
Here’s a stellar example of imagination that has no boundaries: Master Sommelier Nate Ready’s Hiyu Wine Farm & Smockshop Band Atavus Vineyard Gewürztraminer NV, a blend of 95 percent gewürztraminer and 5 percent pinot gris, both from vines planted almost 50 years ago, macerated in whole clusters for four days, fermented with ambient yeast, and blended with solera-aged vintages of the same wine dating back to 2013, might have been a tad difficult for our humble palate to make sense of. Think fino sherry meets vin jaune from the Jura, resulting in a scintillating wine that calls for some gastronomical pairing to reveal its mystery.
New kids on the block Ali Mayfield and Martin Ray source grapes from French Creek Vineyard in the Yakima Valley for The Walls Martin’s Gold Chardonnay 2016 ($36). This is a refined illustration of the diversity in Washington, where cooler regions like this produce graceful wines dominated by citrus and yellow apple notes, in contrast to such warmer regions as Horse Heaven Hills, whose wines are riper and showcase stone and tropical fruit (though both regions yield wines with a vibrant acidic backbone).
Washington rising star Chris Peterson is the winemaker/co-owner on one of Washington’s hottest wineries, Avennia. His 2015 Arnaut Syrah ($50), from Dick Boushey’s vineyard, reveals both the warmth of the vintage (it was the hottest year on record) and the coolness of the site, boasting the richness of black and blue berries, savory meats, and olives, with lip-smacking acidity and a lingering finish. Think Persian grilled lamb kebabs served with saffron-scented basmati rice — or barbecue pulled-pork sliders.
Bob Betz, founder of Betz Family Winery, sourced his 2015 La Côte Patriache Syrah ($60) from the revered Red Willow Vineyard, site of the oldest syrah planting in Washington (dating from 1986), and also the first plantings of tempranillo, viognier, sangiovese, and cabernet franc. Blessed with brightness of fruit and acid, this savory little number is brimming with brooding blackberries, bacon fat, and dried orange peel. With some age and air, and poured alongside a generous slice of prime rib in its own jus, this would be a worthy contender to warm up your wintry evenings.
The Savage Grace Wines Cot Dineen Vineyard Malbec 2016 ($25), whole-cluster-fermented using native yeast, is remarkably light on its feet and dazzling with lively red fruit — a luscious paradigm of carbonic maceration.
Familiar as blaufränkisch in Austria and kékfrankos in Hungary, lemberger commands a modest following in Washington, with Kiona Winery having produced the first commercial bottling of the wine in the U.S. back in 1980. Their estate-bottled 2014 version ($12.99) is 95 percent lemberger, with just a touch of carménère, malbec, merlot, and petit verdot, unfolding with ultra-bright red fruit, held together with medium body and ripe tannins.
The former winemaker at the Napa Valley cult winery Bryant Family Vineyard, Todd Alexander crafts opulent wines at Force Majeure. The Epinette Red Wine 2015 ($99) is a supple and expressive Right Bank Bordeaux-style blend (58 percent merlot, 22 percent cabernet franc, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 5 percent petit verdot), with new French oak rounding everything, making this a seriously sensual sipper.
The epitome of elegance, winemaker Chris Upchurch’s cabernet-dominated 2014 De Lille Cellars Harrison Hill Red Wine ($99) — Harrison Hill is home to some of the oldest cabernet vines in the state, dating back to 1963 — is packed with ripe, dark berry fruit and pretty violets and spiked with well-integrated oak notes of cigar box and cedar, finishing with beautiful balance. It’s a seriously graceful wine that will shine brighter with short-term cellaring.
One of the world’s most planted varietals, grenache is a thin-skinned, late-ripening grape with a fondness for heat that makes it a suitable candidate for Washington’s warm, arid vineyard regions. The splurge-worthy Cayuse Vineyards God Only Knows Grenache 2014 ($150), from the biodynamic Armada Vineyard, crafted by Champagne native Christopher Baron, is loaded with dark fruits, exotic spices, and gaminess. Full bodied, dense, and beautifully balanced, it would match braised lamb shanks or duck perfectly for a memorable meal.
Another stalwart of syrah in Washington, winemaker Morgan Lee, sources fruit from the sustainably farmed Stoney Vine Vineyards from the Rocks District of the Milton-Freewater AVA, across the border in the Oregon portion of the Walla Walla Valley. His Two Vintners "Some Days are Stones" Syrah 2015 ($50) offers enticing aromas of sweet black fruit laced with perfumed flowers, and finishes with seamless balance.
Leonetti Cellar's luscious red-fruit-driven 2015 Merlot ($99) is a good value despite its price tag — a pinnacle of juiciness and perfection. It's still a baby, but what an impressive one! It aims to please even the merlot-haters (or those still stuck in the Sideways debacle) for years to come.
A fifth-generation farmer in the valley Walla Walla Valley, Rick Small was a pioneer in viticulture there, launching the region's second winery, Woodward Canyon, in 1981 (the first was the aforementioned Leonetti Cellar, bonded in 1977). His 2014 Charbonneau ($79), is a blend of cabernet sauvignon (41 percent), merlot (30 percent), cabernet franc (17 percent), and petit verdot (12 percent). With grapes sourced from organic vineyards, recycled corks, the use of wine pomace to control weeds and retain moisture, recyclable and compostable molded fiber inserts for wine shipments, and adherence to the Blue Sky renewable energy program from Pacific Power, Woodward Canyon makes a real commitment to environmental stewardship.
Sourced from the renowned Evergreen Vineyard, dedicated to riesling and chardonnay, the Tempus Cellars Riesling 2015 ($18) pays homage to the grape's hallowed ground — the Mosel — with notes of white peaches, a drizzle of honey, and ripe lemon.
Château Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($29.99), 97 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent merlot, aged for 22 months in 51-percent new French oak, is a stellar example of a large-scale producer producing high-quality wine at a reasonable price. Bravo!!
Washington State is unequivocally a treasure trove of viscerally thrilling gems, full of finesse and sensuality. There has never been a better time to initiate your immersion into Washington State wineries, as their incredible potential is increasingly realized and Washington continues to be respected as one of the greatest regions in the world of wine.