"...Syrah stars in wines such as Rôtie Cellars' Northern Blend Walla Walla Valley 2013 (92, $48), winemaker Sean Boyd's homage to the Côte-Rôtie model of Syrah cofermented with Viognier."
Issue: December 31, 2015
Washington has seen a succession of wines come to the fore since the state first earned recognition in the 1980s for Merlot. By the 1990s, Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends began finding their way into Wine Spectator's annual Top 10 lists. In recent vintages, the biggest success story has been Syrah, which this year accounts for eight of the 14 wines earning classic ratings of 95 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Cabernet Sauvignon remains a major presence along with Syrah. Both categories teem with fruit-forward wines that receive a consistent lift from acidity and brightness in their flavor profiles. Since my previous report ("Washington's Sleek New Whites," Dec. 15, 2014), I have tasted nearly 950 wines from the Evergreen State in our Napa office, more than 400 of them earning scores of 90 points or higher. Cabernet and Cabernet blends account for 160 of these outstanding wines, Syrah and Syrah-based blends for another 115. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)
While Cabernet and Syrah remain strong, several other wine types are on the rise as well, producing enough compelling bottlings to make their categories worth seeking out, especially for adventurous wine drinkers. Malbec and Cabernet Franc, for years used mainly to add depth and texture to blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are now emerging to star on their own.
On the value side, the perennial champ is Riesling. More than a dozen Rieslings in this report rate 88 points or higher and cost $20 or less, including Charles Smith's $12 Kung Fu Girl Evergreen 2014 at 89 points. At an even lower price point, Chateau Ste. Michelle scored a respectable 85 points for its $9 Columbia Valley 2014, of which more than a million cases were made.
Good luck trying to pigeonhole Washington the way New Zealand has been linked to citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, Australia to ripe Shiraz and Napa Valley to cult Cabernet. All of those regions do other things well, but none can match what Washington's vintners have achieved in terms of high quality across a range of grapes and styles.
Since nearly all of the state's grapes grow to the east of the Cascade Range, rainstorms from the west seldom interrupt the growing season and harvest. This decade in particular has seen a series of ideal or near-ideal vintages, so there's little risk right now in selecting one recent vintage over another.
Syrah is thriving in every winegrowing region in Washington. The standout AVA is Walla Walla Valley, particularly its subregion known as The Rocks, which comprises less than 300 of Walla Walla's nearly 3,000 acres. Although Walla Walla's total vineyard acreage is but a fraction of the 52,000 acres planted statewide, all eight classic-rated Syrahs in this report, along with seven of the 10 Syrahs at 94 points, come from sites in Walla Walla, a number of them from vineyards on the stones.
The geographic and geologic makeup of Walla Walla yields something distinctive. The Rocks district, an ancient riverbed strewn with baseball-sized stones, limits yields naturally, making for wines of intense flavor but moderate alcohol levels. The flavor profile often has a noticeable black olive note, and the wines typically show mineral character. The surrounding hills lie at elevations that are high enough (many of them above 1,500 feet) to preserve natural acidity and minerality while attaining ripe blue fruit flavors.
Two top-rated wines by Charles Smith's K Vintners make an apt comparison. The K Syrah Walla Walla Valley Rock Garden 2012 (97 points, $60) is dense, rich, ripe and expressive, offering a feast of plum and black currant flavors, with ripe pear, honey and floral overtones, while the K Syrah Walla Walla Valley Morrison Lane 2012 (96, $45), a higher elevation vineyard, brims with distinct wet stone and salty overtones to its rich core of plum and blackberry fruit.
Other than wines from K and Cayuse, head-turning bottlings from Walla Walla vineyards include wines from àMaurice, Gramercy, Proper, Reynvaan and Saviah, along with Cayuse proprietor Christophe Baron's two other labels, Horsepower and No Girls. Among the top-rated Syrahs from the rest of the state are the sleek Syncline Syrah Yakima Valley Boushey Vineyards 2013 (94, $35) and the broad-shouldered Dunham MacLachlan Syrah Columbia Valley Baby Bear 2011 (94, $54).
Among Syrahs produced in larger quantities, look for the Spring Valley Syrah Walla Walla Valley Nina Lee 2012 (93, $50), ripe with black plum, blueberry, apricot and smoke notes, and the Va Piano Syrah Walla Walla Valley Les Collines Vineyard 2013 (92, $65), with licorice-scented black fruit flavors. For value-seekers, Saviah's Syrah Columbia Valley The Jack 2012 (90, $18) and Hogue's Syrah Columbia Valley Genesis 2012 (89, $16) are examples of how good more modestly priced Syrah can be in Washington.
As a blending component Syrah stars in wines such as Rôtie Cellars' Northern Blend Walla Walla Valley 2013 (92, $48), winemaker Sean Boyd's homage to the Côte-Rôtie model of Syrah cofermented with Viognier. This polished style unfurls its ripe boysenberry, red plum, apricot and spice flavors without haste, coming together harmoniously on the finish.
The Guardian The Informant Wahluke Slope 2012 (92, $30), another Syrah cofermented with Viognier, delivers a core of ripe blackberry and currant fruit, while the Syncline Subduction Red Columbia Valley 2013 (90, $20) uses six different Southern Rhône varieties to produce a fleshy impersonation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, brimming with flavors of blueberry, plum and white pepper. The Betz Bésoleil Columbia Valley 2012 (91, $45) is a sleek Grenache-based version along the same lines, with blackberry, floral and mineral notes.
Cabernet Sauvignon is still a driving force in Washington. Prices can be formidable for in-demand bottlings from standard-bearers such as Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, Cadence and Andrew Will, yet less-established labels offer an alternative, among them Native Sun, Andrew Januik and Avennia. Two exemplary labels from a pair of ex-NFL quarterbacks, Drew Bledsoe's Doubleback and Dan Marino's Passing Time, are also generating excitement at the high end.
Good examples of Cabernet at more moderate prices include standbys such as Canoe Ridge, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Waterbook, which all produce outstanding versions at $25 or less. Columbia has returned to form under new ownership since being purchased by Gallo in 2012, and a handful of new labels such as Luke and Eight Bells are also worth seeking out.
Beyond Cabernet and Syrah, Malbec and Malbec-based blends may be the most intriguing category, with nearly half of the 40 wines reviewed scoring 90 or more points. Across the board, Washington Malbec offers polished tannins and satiny textures, with flavors centering on black cherry, plum and currant, while hints of cocoa, black pepper, wet earth and tar add complexity. The plushness achieves a sense of balance that makes the wines less weighty than many serious Washington reds. The best of them show greater transparency as well.
Among the standouts, the Columbia Crest Malbec Horse Heaven Hills Reserve 2012 (92, $35) ticks off all the boxes. Supple, silky and expressive, the wine is rich in texture and blooming with black cherry, blackberry, floral and tar flavors. At the value end, a shot of raspberry flavor in Waterbrook's polished Malbec Columbia Valley 2013 (89, $14) pushes through the core of tar and spice.
State agricultural reports show that wineries pay growers more per ton for Malbec than any other grape except Grenache. Malbec produced 2,200 tons statewide in 2014, fifth among red grapes, a figure that has more than doubled in the past five years. Cabernet Sauvignon tops the list, followed by Merlot and Syrah, yet Malbec now stands just behind Cabernet Franc and ahead of Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir and Grenache. Today Washington makes more Malbec than it does Viognier, Sémillon and Chenin Blanc.
Baer Winery has used Malbec as a blending grape in many of its wines, including its perennially outstanding Ursa bottling (2012: 94, $39), and plans to bottle a varietal Malbec from the 2014 vintage, its first non-blended red. A barrel sample I tasted at the winery showed an open texture and persistence on a harmonious finish. "We like the way Malbec's savory herb character integrates with the fruit," says winemaker Erica Orr. "We always put a little into Ursa, but we had more than we needed in 2014." The wine is due out in 2017.
Cabernet Franc and its attendant blends continue to impress as well, with 14 wines scoring 90-plus out of 26 reviewed. Either on its own or in a blend, the grape shows distinctive floral character and lighter texture. An outstanding example is the supple OS Cabernet Franc Yakima Valley Sonas 2013 (92, $25), with floral black cherry and blackberry notes. More widely available, Columbia Crest Gold Grand Estates Limited Release Columbia Valley 2013 (90, $12), a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend, shows polish to its ripe black cherry and licorice flavors.
Grenache and Grenache-led blends put up similarly strong numbers this year, as 13 of 28 wines reviewed rated outstanding. The style offers a contrast to the state's beefy Syrahs. Oak plays less of a role, and the grape can achieve a more lilting style. This report's most stunning bottlings come from Christophe Baron, whose top-scoring Horsepower Grenache Walla Walla Valley Sur Echalas Vineyard 2012 (96, $115) is dark and dense yet light on its feet, layering chalk and wet rock minerality through ripe, meaty cherry and clotted cream flavors.
As Baron plants additional vineyards in his home region of The Rocks, in Walla Walla, Grenache is getting equal treatment to Syrah. "Grenache out of Sur Echalas is more in a Pinot Noir style," Baron says. "I like that. We need to plant more."
The Tenet GSM Columbia Valley 2013 (93, $70) is a bit easier to find. The joint venture between Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Michel Gassier, the owner of Château de Nages in France's Costière de Nîmes, makes its debut with this signature blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, delivering a lithe and agile mouthful of blackberry, black cherry and licorice flavors.
Among the white wines from the Evergreen State, there's growing diversity as well. Chardonnay continues to account for the largest number of bottlings-about 40 percent of the 200 whites in this report-followed by Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and others. Refreshing in style, especially in the less-than-$20 range, Washington Chardonnay consistently offers good value.
Efforts are gaining traction to upgrade specificity and depth of character in the best examples. (See last year's report for more detail on winemakers aiming for greater expressiveness and harmony in Chardonnay.)
The first wines from Sixto—a partnership between Charles Smith and his two winemakers, Brennon Leighton and Andrew Latta—are real eye-openers. Cool-climate vineyards provide acidity to balance the ripeness. The Chardonnay Washington Roza Hills 2012 (94, $55) starts off spicy, then morphs into lime, pear and quince flavors, and the Chardonnay Washington Moxee Vineyard 2012 (93, $55) brings spicy pear and citrus flavors together with finesse on the harmonious finish. Other top bottlings include Chris Gorman's Ashan Chardonnay Yakima Valley Kestrel Vineyard 2013 (93, $45), which offers great presence, with pear, pineapple and green guava flavors on a silky frame, and Woodward Canyon's Chardonnay Washington 2013 (92, $44), glistening with flickers of lemon curd and guava around a core of pear and pineapple.
At less than $20, the Waterbrook Chardonnay Columbia Valley Reserve 2013 (90, $17) shows nutmeg and caramel overtones around a core of pear fruit, and the Charles Smith Chardonnay Washington Eve 2013 (89, $12) delivers fresh, appealing apple, pear and cinnamon spice through its lively finish.
Viognier was originally planted in Washington to coferment with Syrah, simultaneously brightening the flavor profile and darkening the color. (Rôtie Cellars' Northern Blend, mentioned above, is one example; Cayuse's Syrah Cailloux Vineyard 2012 (95, $80), containing 5 percent Viognier, is another.) Now Washington producers are using the grape to make white wines of crispness and detail. The Alexandria Nicole Viognier Columbia Valley Crawford 2014 (90, $20), for example, delivers classic Viognier flavors of spice and pear on a fresh and vibrant frame.
Second only to California in total production volume among U.S. states, Washington remains ahead of the pack in terms of making outstanding wines at affordable prices. As the range of options from the state keeps widening, the best bottles are becoming ever more distinctive. Washington wine is still gaining momentum.
Editor at large Harvey Steiman is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Washington.