What defines Washington State wine? That’s the question the state has been trying to answer as it grows from its infancy—most vineyards have been planted in the last 40 years—into its adolescence as a wine-growing region.
This month’s series of Washington reviews provides no easy answer. Top scoring wines include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-style blends, Rhône-style blends, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Malbec and Merlot. Oh, and there are quality rosés and ice wines mixed in there too.
Why so much diversity? There are more than 40 wine-grape varieties planted in Washington, and many have shown an affinity for the region.
Looking at why that is, it’s important to understand that the Columbia Valley—Washington’s largest growing region—is far from monolithic. Taking up nearly a third of the land mass of the state, it’s a diverse winegrowing region, full of ranges of elevation and heat accumulation. Additionally, the Columbia Valley is a desert, with warm, dry temperatures, meaning irrigation is required in almost all vineyards. This provides growers with a fine level of control over the amount of water that each grape vine receives, increasing both quality and consistency, while allowing a large number of grape varieties to flourish.
There are more than 40 wine-grape varieties planted in Washington, and many have shown an affinity for the region.
With so much diversity, how are we to understand Washington as a wine region? Certainly, red grape varieties surpass white varieties in terms of quality, though high-quality white wines undoubtedly exist.
Otherwise, what unites the wines across variety is ripe New World fruit combined with an Old World-style structure, with higher acidity due to cool nights.
Washington probably won’t be identified with a single grape variety any time soon. However, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are increasingly separating themselves. Will these grapes eventually become Washington’s calling card? Only time will tell.
Kevin White 2015 En Hommage Syrah (Yakima Valley); $28, 93 points. This wine is 100% Syrah from Boushey, Olsen and Elephant Mountain vineyards. Alluring aromas of herb, blackberry, bramble, green olive, flower and smoked meat lead to a richly flavored palate that explodes with abundant savory, meaty flavors. It drinks like a charcuterie plate, with plenty of fresh herbs rounding it out. Editor’s Choice.
Morell-Peña 2015 Ysabella Bjork Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $45, 92 points. Aromas of pear, lees and tropical fruit lead to a rich flavorful palate, absolutely loaded with tropical-fruit flavors that show a delightful sense of balance. The oak usage (25% new French) is judicious, allowing the fruit to shine.
J. Bookwalter 2014 1RDRS4 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $28, 90 points. Aromas of cocoa powder, cherry, medicinal notes and herb lead to a palate chock-full of black-fruit flavors with bittersweet-chocolate accents. It’s an unabashedly delicious and ripe offering of this variety with a finish that sails.
Stevens 2014 Stevens Timley Malbec (Yakima Valley); $32, 91 points. This wine opens with aromas of green herb, purple fruit, orange peel and wood spice. The palate brings sweet but tart cranberry and cherry flavors that possess a velvety feel. It’s an intriguing example of the variety.
Block Wines 2015 Golden Block Boushey Vineyard Grenache (Yakima Valley); $40, 92 points. Quite light in color with almost an orange hue, this wine brings exuberant aromas of white pepper, fresh herb, red fruit, stem, smoked meat and potpourri. The palate is light, elegant and transparent in style with vibrant fruit, spice and savory flavors that linger on the extended finish and kick it up a notch. The oak influence is dialed way back. It delivers a lot of enjoyment on its own but should really sing at the dinner table. Editors’ Choice.
Upsidedown 2016 Rescue Rosé (Columbia Valley); $18, 90 points. This wine is a rare example of Nebbiolo in the state. A pretty pale peach, almost bronze color, it brings aromas of mineral and strawberry. The tart flavors drink bone dry with medium-bodied cherry notes that draw out on the finish.
Quilceda Creek 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley (WA)); $140, 94 points. This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Champoux, Palengat and Wallula vineyards, all located with the Horse Heaven Hills appellation. Aromas of incense, dark fruit, licorice and barrel spice rise up from the glass, which also reveals penetrating cherry and anise notes. The flavors are rich and concentrated but far from over the top, with expertly integrated tannins. It brings a very pleasing sense of texture. Just a baby now, but it has the stuffing to go the distance. Best from 2027–2033. Cellar Selection.
Savage Grace 2016 Cabernet Franc Red Willow Vineyard Rosé (Yakima Valley); $22, 89 points. The first rosé from this winery is a direct press with a several hours of skin contact, coming from new plantings at this esteemed vineyard. Pale cherry in color, it brings pleasing aromas of strawberry, citrus zest, green pepper and mineral. The palate is dry, sleek and stylish, with abundant, tart citrus-rind flavors that keep the interest high, finishing with a green herbal note.
Efeste 2014 Emmy Stone Tree Vineyard Mourvèdre (Wahluke Slope); $49, 93 points. Blended with 12% Grenache, aromas of blackberry, caper, fresh herb, cranberry, mineral and spice are followed by full-bodied, lush black-fruit flavors, with white pepper and raw meat notes that persist on the finish. It flat out impresses, bringing a compelling sense of balance.
Syncline 2015 Grenache-Carignan (Horse Heaven Hills); $30, 91 points. This wine—the only of its kind in the state—is a blend of 70% Carignan and 30% Grenache. It brings appealing, quite pure aromas of herbs, bramble and red fruit. The flavors also bring a compelling sense of purity, with no new oak influence anywhere in sight. Put it on the dinner table to see it shine. Editor’s Choice.
Ambassador Vineyard 2014 Estate Grown Merlot (Red Mountain); $38, 89 points. Petit Verdot makes up a full 14% of this wine, which also includes 9% Cabernet Franc. Penetrating aromas of raspberries, fresh cherries, licorice, herb, vanilla and barrel spices are at the fore. The flavors are plush and juicy, bringing a sense of elegance and poise. The barrel aromas and flavors are prominent, but it still brings appeal.