Is Cabernet Sauvignon Washington’s Premier Grape?

Over 80 types of grapes are grown in Washington State, a region known for its varietal diversity. But with all the competition, is Cabernet king?
Photo by Tom Arena

Washington State wine is perhaps best known for its diversity. There are more than 80 grape varieties planted here, but one variety seems to be separating itself from the crowd: Cabernet Sauvignon.

Washington’s Cabernet plantings date to the early 1940s, and vines planted in 1956 at Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley remain some of the oldest in production today. With a climate once thought too cool to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, plantings across the Columbia Valley (Washington’s largest wine-growing region) have increased through the decades.

Many of the state’s early producers, names that include Quilceda Creek, Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon, made reputations based on their Cabernets. Still, varieties like Riesling and Chardonnay led the state in production.

Then, in 2013, Cabernet became Washington’s most-produced grape variety. Plantings have only increased in subsequent years, with Cabernet production up a whopping 50 percent in 2016. Could it be that in a state of diverse varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon has become first among equals?

Making the Case for Cabernet

“Cabernet is our best grape,” says Bob Betz, MW, who has worked with the variety at Betz Family Winery since 1997. “Notwithstanding fabulous Riesling, outstanding Syrah and very good Merlot, but I do think Cabernet Sauvig­non is our greatest grape.”

Washington Cabernet Sauvignon mixes New World-style fruit with more of an Old World-style structure, in terms of the balance of tannins and acidity.

Cabernet Sauvignon, often called the “King of Grapes,” is known for its firm tannins and aging potential. What differentiates Washington Cabernet from those made in other areas of the world?

“It’s the fruit purity that we get, along with a lot of tannin and lots of color,” says Betz. He maintains that Washington Cabernet has a unique aromatic signature. “The secondary notes that I get more in Washington than other American appellations are that complex of dried herbs—anise, thyme, bay leaf and, occasionally, a little bit of rosemary.”

“Washington Cabernet definitely has an herbal note,” says Rick Small, who started to make Cabernet in 1977, first as a home winemaker and since 1981, at Woodward Canyon Winery in the Walla Walla Valley.

“Sometimes as winemakers, you want to go so far into the fruit zone that you forget that herbal note is an integral part of the typicity of Cabernet Sauvignon. We definitely get it here.”

Winemakers also say that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon mixes New World-style fruit with more of an Old World-style structure, in terms of the balance of tannins and acidity.

“We have one of the few climates in the world that kind of slices down the middle and achieves what I think is perfect balance in Cabernet,” says Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, whose family has made Cabernet since 1978. “We have the opulence of fruit that they have in Napa or other warm climate areas. But we get the austerity of tannins and higher acid, that leanness that they get in Bordeaux and other cooler climates of the world. You have a bit of the best of both worlds.”

Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, attributes this to warm summers and the coolness late in the harvest season, when Cabernet Sauvignon is picked.

“The essence of Cabernet is the diurnal temperature shift that we get here,” says Bertheau. He says that the difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows can be as much as 40˚F. “We’re really hot during the summer, but then we cool down going into October. Because of those cold Octobers, we can hold down our sugars—and thus potential alcohols—a little more than some other regions, and we get really good natural acidity.”

This delivers a ripeness of fruit flavors while preserving the acidity that gives the wines a sense of freshness.

From left to right: Feather 2013 Vintage Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley), Quilceda Creek 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley), Woodward Canyon 2014 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington), Betz Family 2014 Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley), DeLille 2014 Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain) and Leonetti Cellar 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley).
Feather 2013 Vintage Select, Quilceda Creek 2014, Woodward Canyon 2014 Old Vines, Betz Family 2014 Père de Famille, DeLille 2014 Four Flags and Leonetti Cellar 2014 / Photo by Tom Arena

Feather 2013 Vintage Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley (WA)); $95, 94 points. This reserve level wine brings high-toned aromas of herbs, violets, bittersweet cocoa, mint and dark fruits. The palate displays layered, full-bodied cherry and chocolate flavors that show density and depth. It’s an impressive display that captures the senses with its seamless feel.

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.

Woodward Canyon 2014 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington); $99, 94 points. One of the state’s best bottles year after year, this delivers herb, blackberry, woodspice and vanilla bean aromas. The palate is tightly wound and impeccably balanced, with a mixture of fruit and barrel flavors that show depth. Made with the future in mind, it will be best from 2025–2032.

Betz Family 2014 Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley (WA)); $75, 93 points. Boysenberry, black fruit, bay leaf, plum and spice aromas are followed by intense but still well-balanced dark-fruit flavors. It stretches out on the finish, drinking extremely well now, but its best days are in front of it. Best from 2023–2030. Cellar Selection.

DeLille 2014 Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $69, 93 points. This 100% varietal wine is a blend of fruit from Grand Ciel (42%), Upchurch (31%), Ciel du Cheval (19%) and Klipsun vineyards. Wound-up aromas of black cherry and barrel spice are followed by pitch-black-fruit flavors, with the tannins combed to a fine sheen. It flat out impresses.  Editors’ Choice.

Leonetti Cellar 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley (WA)); $95, 93 points. This wine is a blend of fruit from Seven Hills, Loess, Mill Creek Upland, Leonetti Old Block and Serra Pedace. Aromas of mineral, black cherry, incense, barrel spice and scorched earth lead to a full-bodied textured palate full of black-fruit flavors and tightly wound tannins. It drinks quite young now, needing some time to come into its own. Best from 2024–2029. Cellar Selection.

Explore the Diversity of Washington State Wines

Success in Site Selection

While Cabernet Sauvignon has shown a great affinity for the Columbia Valley, site selection remains critical to producing high-quality wines.

“You need to be extremely careful where you plant Cab in Washington, not thinking that it can grow anywhere,” says Bertheau. “You need to make sure you get enough early heat units to get to a ripeness level before you hit the cold spells. If you don’t get there before you hit that first 34-degree night in October, you’re going to have a tough time getting home.”

Though there’s a common thread between the wines, the Columbia Valley’s various appellations do show different profiles.

“The Wahluke Slope tends to be softer, jammier, with sweet tannins with a little less extract,” says Bertheau. “Yakima [Valley] Cabs that I get are more fruit driven and elegant, a little less powerful. Red Mountain has a structure that I don’t get in any other fruit. My Horse Heaven [Hills] Cabs have a vibrancy to the fruit and a fresh style of tannin.”

In the cellar, the state’s winemakers agree there’s one key to make a quality Washington Cabernet Sauvignon: tannin management.

“I didn’t learn the phrase ‘tannin management’ until I came to Washington,” says Josh Maloney, who made wine in California before he worked at some of the state’s largest wineries, like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Milbrandt Vineyards. He now owns Maloney Wine, a winery dedicated to single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons from Washington.

“We definitely have a lot more tannin in our wines up here, compared to California,” says Maloney. “I’d been trained in Napa and central California, where you do things to get everything you can out of the grapes. Our tannin profile up here is so different that those approaches did not work.

“Up here, you really have to start shaping the tannins from day one of fermentation, or even going back to the vineyard to manage sun exposure.”

Bertheau says there’s a need to be a bit gentler with tannin extraction in Washington State Cab.

“There’s plenty of power and intensity in most regions,” he says. “It’s not a thoroughbred that you need to teach how to run around a track to win a race. The power is there, but you have to be able to harness it.”

“In Napa, it was a little bit more forgiving making Cabernet,” says Todd Alexander, winemaker at Force Majeure Vineyards. “You could be a little more aggressive and get away with it. Here, you’ve got to be a little more careful so you don’t get angular tannins with that jagged mouthfeel with astringency.”

From left to right: Doubleback 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley), Passing Time 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain), Fielding Hills 2014 Estate Riverbend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Wahluke Slope), Novelty Hill 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley), Chateau Ste. Michelle 2014 Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) and Intrinsic 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley).
Doubleback 2014, Passing Time 2014, Fielding Hills 2014 Estate Riverbend Vineyard, Novelty Hill 2014, Chateau Ste. Michelle 2014 Cold Creek Vineyard and Intrinsic 2015 / Photo by Tom Arena

Doubleback 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley (WA)); $94, 92 points. This wine is a blend of McQueen, Bob Healy and Lefore vineyard fruit, aged 22 months in 73% new French oak. Alluring aromas of macerated cherries, scorched earth, coffee, barrel spice and dark chocolate are followed by supple, focused, concentrated dark-fruit flavors. It brings some tannic heft that will benefit from time in the cellar. Best from 2023–2030. Cellar Selection.

Passing Time 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $75, 92 points. The inaugural release of this wine, this hails largely from the esteemed Klipsun Vineyard. Alluring aromas of herb, earth, cherry liqueur and black fruit lead to sweet, sappy black-fruit flavors and burly but still well-integrated tannins. It’s only going to get better with additional time in the bottle. Best after 2023. Cellar Selection.

Fielding Hills 2014 Estate Riverbend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Wahluke Slope); $46, 91 points. The aromas bring notes of baking spice, vanilla, cassis, coconut and dark fruit, along with a penetrating anise note. The black-fruit flavors are rich and luscious, displaying a sense of hedonism that shows equal parts fruit and barrel.

Novelty Hill 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley (WA)); $26, 91 points. Dried herb aromas are at the fore of this Cabernet; exotic spice, smoke, licorice and cherry notes follow. Cherry and chocolate flavors coat the palate, showing vibrancy, while a distinctive espresso note marks the finish. Editors’ Choice.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2014 Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley (WA)); $30, 90 points. Barrel-forward aromas of vanilla and toast are in front of herb and cherry. The palate brings a sense of polish and appeal, with the tannins bringing some squeeze on the finish.

Intrinsic 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley (WA)); $22, 90 points. This is a one-of-a-kind wine in the state, with 50% of the wine fermented on skins for nine months and the rest aged in concrete and older oak. Pure red- and blue-fruit aromas are followed by bold fruit flavors and well-integrated tannins, without a trace of oak in sight. It’s a completely unique interpretation of the variety, but most importantly, it’s delicious.

In the Cellar and Beyond

One of the hallmarks of a great Cabernet is its ability to stand the test of time. Can Washington Cabernets age?

“I had a ’78 about 18 months ago that was just singing,” says Figgins, referring the first vintage of his family’s wine. “It’s not getting any better, but it’s drinking wonderfully.”

But not all Washington Cabernets are meant for the long haul.

After years where different varieties vied for state primacy, can Washington establsh an identity with its Cabernet Sauvignon?

“It depends on your house style,” says Figgins. “I think that, made the right way, Washington Cabs can be 25-year to 40-year wines. They can age as well as almost any wines in the world. There are other Cabernets made in Washington that, you know, they are 15-year wines. But they are absolutely delicious for that 15 years.”

According to Figgins, high quality is also a hallmark of the state’s Cabernets, thanks to warm, dry summers and the use of irrigation.

“I don’t know if there’s another major wine region in the world [where] vintage matters less,” he says. “Of course, we have vintage variation and there are occasional outliers, but the consumer can purchase  Washington Cabernet with a confidence and disregard for vintage that is impossible almost anywhere else in the world.”

Many Washington wineries also use Cabernet as an important blending component. “Cabernet plays well in the sandbox with others,” says Bertheau. “It is very, very blendable.”

So, after years where different varieties vied for state primacy, can Washington establish an identity with its Cabernet Sauvignon?

“I think long term, if you look at the future and look at the plantings, the writing is on the wall,” says Bertheau. “Huge amounts of Cabernet [vines] are going into the ground. We can and we will make a big statement with Cabernet in Washington State.”

Figgins agrees. “There are many varieties that do incredibly well in Washington. But Cabernet is the one variety in Washington that I see as consistently capable of reaching greatness. Cabernet is our grape.”

Published on December 19, 2017
Topics: Wine and Ratings
About the Author
Sean P. Sullivan
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Washington and Idaho

In addition to his work at Wine Enthusiast, Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, a site dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest that has twice been named ‘Best Single Subject Wine Blog’ by the Wine Blog Awards. Sullivan has authored over 100 print articles on Northwest wine. He resides in Seattle, Washington.


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