New Releases from Washington State

The long and dusty drive to the Walla Walla and Yakima Valleys to taste current releases and visit some of Washington State new players has become an annual journey of discovery, what with the feverish pace of grape-growing and winemaking improvement and the recent string of successful vintages. On my most recent tour of Washington State in late July, I found more exciting wine than ever before; my notes on the following pages cover more than 50 producers. The last three vintages have all been conducive to producing excellent red wines in the Columbia Valley. I continue to love the best of the '98s for their concentrated, sappy fruit and captivating sweetness, even if there are also too many roasted reds-some downright porty due to very warm harvest conditions and a tendency toward low acidity. In theory, the cooler, gentler '99 growing season and the absence of heat spikes in the weeks leading up to the harvest, allowed growers to pick at their leisure, at generally healthy acid levels. The best '99s are fresh and focused, and promise to develop slowly and well in bottle; many winemakers claim this crop of wines has better balance and aging potential than the '98s. But even in '99, some growers waited too long to harvest. I tasted numerous '99 reds with overripe character, even a tendency toward volatility (this latter trait may also be due to less-than-ideal barrels or sloppy elevage). Vintage 2000 was a very warm year, with several bursts of heat in late summer and early fall (in the high desert east of the Cascades, it's not at all unusual for afternoon temperatures to top 100 degrees several days in a row). Picking strategies were thus crucial to making balanced wines. (The white wines from 2000 tend to show more candied notes than those of the previous year, but this was a minor factor in my recent tastings, as the majority of Washington State's best bottles are generally of the red persuasion.)

What struck me on my tasting tour in July was the growing number of winemakers who have learned how to tame the strong tannins produced by many of the State's most important vineyards, through later harvesting of thoroughly ripe fruit, careful extraction during vinification, and meticulous elevage using top-quality (and in most cases a high percentage of French) barrels. Names like Cadence, Canoe Ridge, Cayuse, Col Solare, Northstar, Quilceda Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon immediately spring to mind. While these still represent a minority of the state's producers, their current releases gloriously demonstrate the state's potential to make significant quantities of world-class cabernet, merlot and even syrah that combine assertive, focused flavors and suave texture. On the other hand, there are still many powerful wines whose strong raw material is plain to see but which are distinctly unrefined, if not downright rustic. These wines typically offer a wall of undifferentiated fruit, propped up by spiky acids and mouthclenching tannins. There is a market for this style of wine, but demand tends to dry up when prices creep north of $20.

This year I tasted recommendable bottlings from no fewer than 51 producers, up from 44 last year. (I also tasted one or more releases that did not rate at least 85 points from another 17 wineries.) Special thanks must go to Dan McCarthy for his assistance in orchestrating a series of comprehensive tastings in Walla Walla, Yakima Valley and Seattle. McCarthy, co-owner of the McCarthy & Schiering wine shops in Seattle, one of the best retail source for Washington State wines, is also the co-author of the pocket guide Northwest Wines(Sasquatch Books, Seattle) and a bottomless source of intelligence on the Washington wine scene. He tasted with me as part of his research for a new buyer's guide to be dedicated entirely to Washington State wines, due out next spring.