Best New Wines from Washington State

Washington State's best bottles continue to be well worth pursuing, as recent vintages have been conducive to making highly satisfying red wine.While Washington's goodies don't come cheap, prices are rarely laughable, as prices for second-tier California cabernets and merlots tend to be.The superstars in my tastings this year, which were conducted mostly in Washington in late July, will come as no surprise to wine lovers who track this state's wines:Andrew Will, Betz Family Winery, Cadence Winery, Cayuse Vineyards and Quilceda Creek Vintners.I also found a high level of quality from Januik Winery, Leonetti Cellars, Matthews Cellars, McCrea Cellars, Northstar, Owen Roe, Rockblock Cellars, Ross Andrew Winery, Sineann and Woodward Canyon Winery.

Here are some brief conclusions drawn from my extensive tastings of current releases from more than 80 wineries this summer.A growing number of the top Washington State red wines are careful blends of two or more Bordeaux varieties.But since these blends often combine fruit from two or more vineyards, relatively few wines to date really showcase a single site.In my experience, only a couple of the state's vineyards have proven that they can consistently produce complete wines from a single variety (Ciel du Cheval and Seven Hills are two that spring to mind).Not surprisingly, a fuller range of Bordeaux red varieties is now being planted in numerous important vineyards (e.g., Champoux, formerly Mercer Ranch).More than one Washington winemaker told me of his plans to offer only vineyard-designated wines in the future, as opposed to varietally labeled bottlings.This approach may well be the best way to solidify Washington's position on the world wine map over the longer term.

One trend that may be counterproductive is the tendency of some producers to try to compete with the superrich cult cabernets of Napa Valley.These folks are aware of the steep prices some California wines continue to fetch, and they'd like a piece of this action.But attempting to craft ever-larger, more extracted and darker wines (often by picking overripe fruit and then being forced to acidify, or even to add water to bring down alcohol levels and finish fermentations) risks sacrificing the features that make Washington's wines so captivating:their combination of ripe tannins, sound acids, moderate alcohol and intense fresh fruit flavors that avoid going porty or pruney.

Besides all the good stuff that I sampled, there is also a shocking amount of really bad wine coming out of the state.The group tasting I do each year that focuses on wineries located in Yakima Valley (technically, between Yakima and Richland) is routinely one of the grimmest events of my year.This July, fully half of the wines at this tasting showed noticeable flaws, most frequently oxidation or excessive volatile acidity, crude oakiness, or evidence of seriously underripe or overcropped fruit (i.e., strongly herbaceous aromas and flavors; obvious dilution; tart, dry or invisible finishes).But to be fair to Yakima Valley, this area is also the home of some of Washington State's most glorious vineyards.Many of the state's elite producers, including those based in Walla Walla to the east, or in the Seattle area, work largely with Yakima fruit.

White wines are steadily disappearing in favor of reds, and in most cases this is all to the good.In my tastings this summer, I found some very good chardonnays, rieslings and sauvignon blancs, and a few viogniers that indicate that this variety has a bright future here, but it is rare that a Washington State white wine possesses the balance and complexity to merit an outstanding rating.

A brief word on recent vintages.Vintage 1999 remains a personal favorite of mine for its sharply delineated, intense, structured reds from a long, cool growing season.Two thousand was very good but 2001 may be even better:some insiders describe the latter set of wines as both riper and higher in acidity than the 2000s, with brighter, more expressive fruit flavors and more obvious sex appeal.My early look at some 2002s suggests that this harvest has also produced many strong red wines.Veteran winemaker Mike Januik told me he ranked 2002 among the top four vintages of the past two decades, along with 1987, 1994 and 1999.

This year I tasted recommendable bottlings from nearly 60 producers.Additional wines from these producers that rated 83 or 84 points are listed with an asterisk.(I also tasted one or more releases that did not rate at least 85 points from another two dozen or more wineries.)