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Mar 30, 2015
I've written about Washington wine before, but this week I had the opportunity to explore the state's wine further with an exhaustive trip through the many AVAs. Washington wine is at an exciting stage right now, as ambitious winemakers and grape-growers match varieties with the best sites. I came into Washington hoping to discover which grape variety expresses the state, but left convinced that Washington, like the greatest regions of France, is best understood through the distinctive terroirs of each AVA. This makes understanding Washington wine complicated, but it's well worth it as this is a fascinating and very varied wine region.
Over 99% of Washington's wine is produced in Columbia Valley, a large, all-encompassing AVA in arid eastern Washington. In the growing season, the days are hot and long - Washington receives 8 days more sunshine a year than California - but the nights are cold with temperatures falling as low as 10 degrees. This wide diurnal variation prolongs the growing season, allowing the grapes to ripen fully while retaining high acidity. This acidity is a defining characteristic of both whites and reds, giving the wines a vibrancy not always present in warm regions.
Washington is a geologist's paradise, with a huge amount of different soils within vineyards let alone across the state. 13,000 years ago, the Missoula floods swept across eastern Washington depositing a variety of soils that otherwise wouldn't be there. At high altitudes, the original volcanic soils still remain. Changing from site to site, these soils are the reason that Washington has such a varied terroir. Furthermore, these difficult soils, combined with very low winter temperatures (winter freeze is a problem), mean that Washington remains phylloxera-free, all the vines planted on their own roots.
In the 1990s, Merlot was the state's signature grape variety but fashion has seen it overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon. I feel Washington's greatest wines are from Syrah, a variety which for some reason is a difficult sell throughout the USA. I was also extremely impressed with the Malbecs I tasted: like Mendoza, the diurnal temperature variation allows the grape to ripen slowly and fully, bringing out all its phenolic qualities. Whatever the variety, Washington's reds share an aromatic florality, ripe red and black fruits, firm tannins, and high acidity. There's an Old World-New World overlap in the wines: fruit forward, but delicate, and with an enlivening acidity.
The whites are less consistent. Riesling used to be the most planted grape because its natural high acidity suits the climate, but it rarely demonstrates sufficient complexity. It's been surpassed by Chardonnay, which for some time producers were making in imitation of big, oaky California examples. Chardonnay is beginning to be planted on more suitable, high altitude sites, leading to more restrained wines with better acidity, but I don't think it best represents the terroir of Washington. Sauvignon Blanc perhaps does this most successfully, with a full body, floral aromas, and a dry, mineral finish, while Viognier, which is often flabby in warm regions, retains sufficient acidity alongside its characteristic floral and stone fruit aromas.
For a region that is little known outside the state, Washington has an excessive number of AVAs (13). Even more confusingly, three of them spread into Oregon and a "fourteenth," The Rocks District, is entirely within Oregon. However, having visited many of the AVAs, it's clear that each one has its own distinct identity. It may take some time and a great deal of consumer education, but Washington is best understood by breaking it down into its different areas rather than by grape variety.
Walla Walla Valley
Perhaps Washington's best known AVA due to an impressive marketing campaign, Walla Walla is in actual fact quite small, with just over 500ha planted even though the AVA stretches into Oregon. The best vineyard is Seven Hills, which takes in several small, windswept hills at the southern end of the valley. It receives 300mm of rain annually and growers have had to drill a well over 300m deep to find 10,000-year-old water to irrigate the site.
Stand-out wine: L'Ecole No. 41 Estate Perigee 2012 ($49) ✪✪✪✪✪
A Bordeaux blend with beautiful ripe, perfumed fruits, and herbal, menthol, bitter chocolate, and mocha aromas. The tannins are firm but integrated, giving the wine great structure.
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater
This new AVA is entirely in Oregon, but within the Washington Walla Walla AVA. This is extremely confusing, but makes some kind of sense. The soils of Washington do not stop at the political boundary and it will need continued co-operation between the Washington and Oregon wine boards to spread knowledge of the region's different wines. The name of the AVA is clumsy but again makes sense: the soils are extremely rocky (unlike the rest of Walla Walla). The Syrahs here are particularly interesting: floral, perfumed, almost hedonistic, yet with restrained fruits.
Stand-out wine: Delmas 2012 (92.5% Syrah, 7.5% Viognier) $65 ✪✪✪✪✪✪
From the driving force behind the creation of The Rocks District AVA, this Syrah/Viognier blend has a dark, intense complexity, with coffee, truffles, dark chocolate, and liquorice, all lightened with floral and herbal aromas of lavender, myrrh, ginger, and orange peel. Also worth mentioning are Proper's Estate Syrah ($42) from both 2012 and 2013 (both ✪✪✪✪✪) and Balboa's 2012 Malbec ($34; ✪✪✪✪✪).
Horse Heaven Hills
A high, undulating plateau taking in over 4,000ha of vines, Horse Heaven Hills includes one of Washington's greatest vineyards, Champoux. This vast AVA (it covers a total of 228,000ha) is windswept and bleak, reminding me of the Yorkshire moors without the rain. 24 different black grape varieties are planted, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate.
Stand-out wine: Andrew Will Sorella 2009 ($85) ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪
One of the US's great red wines, the Sorella is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, varying with each vintage. This is a prime expression of the Champoux vineyard, first planted in 1972. As with Washington's best wines, the Sorella has firm, drying tannins which give the wine a gripping mouthfeel, lifted by a vibrant acidity. The fruits are soft and ripe, yet delicate, elegant, and restrained. This is a serious wine with long ageing potential. A year and a half ago, I visited the Andrew Will winery on Vashon Island near Seattle, which is one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.
The smallest AVA is where the Washington story began, with Jim Holmes and John Williams planting vines in 1972. Jim Holmes claims they didn't know what they were doing, but there may be some false modesty at play. The small mountain, so barren it had never been planted with any crop before, has a varied, rugged topography that results in outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. This is the AVA that may push Washington on to the international map: Duckhorn of Napa have recently planted here, andAquilani of Canada have bought over 250 of the AVA's potential 1,600ha.
Stand-out wine: Force Majeure Estate Syrah ($65) ✪✪✪✪✪✪
A rich, lush nose of red and black fruits, with a peppery spiciness, but floral, perfumed, and balanced - a typical Red Mountain combination.
The biggest AVA besides Columbia Valley, the quality and style of Yakima wine fluctuates. Its best and most historic vineyard isRed Willow, first planted by the Sawyer farming family in the early 1970s. Once again Cabernet and Syrah excel - the Syrah grown on the steep south-facing slope below the chapel looks and tastes French.
Stand-out wine: Owen Roe Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($72) ✪✪✪✪✪✪
From the original 1973 plantings on the Red Willow vineyard, this is another perfumed Cabernet, with cedar, oak, pencil lead, cocoa, chocolate, and black tea. Gripping tannins and a full mouthfeel belie a long, subtle finish.
With just over 150ha, Columbia Gorge is the most unusual of Washington's AVAs. It again extends into Oregon and its wine culture is closer to Portland than Seattle. Rainfall varies from 250 to 1,700mm, depending on location - like the other AVAs, topography, climate, and soils vary remarkably. Due to the cooler, wetter climate, white grapes dominate, particularly Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Chardonnay.
Stand-out wine: Savage Grace Chardonnay 2013 ($26) ✪✪✪✪✪✪
From Celilo vineyard, which is considered the finest in the AVA. On a mountainside with volcanic soils, the climate is maritime, receiving up to 1,250mm of rain each year. This cool, wet climate results in light, acidic wines such as this Chardonnay from up-and-coming winemaker Michael Savage. This wine stands comparison with the best Chablis: citrus, mineral aromas, with light cream and baking apples on the palate, with a crisp acidity.
Many wineries source grapes from individual vineyards all over the state, which will be labelled Columbia Valley. It's difficult to generalise about these wines, which will vary according to site, blend, variety, and the winemaker.
Stand-out wine: Avennia Justine Red Rhône Blend 2012 ($40) ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Although Syrah emerged as my favourite Washington grape, a handful of winemakers are also making wine from other Rhône varieties. Maryhill of Columbia Gorge make an excellent Mourvèdre ($45; ✪✪✪✪✪✪), demonstrating how exciting that grape can be in the right hands. The Justine from Avennia is 49% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache, and 23% Syrah. Dark, earthy, and floral, this is voluptuous, immediate, and powerful: Washington wine in a nutshell.