I enjoyed one of the perks of being a traveling wine critic last week: I beat the heat and humidity of the Northeast by tasting new Washington State wines in cool Seattle and bone-dry Walla Walla, as I’ve been doing every July since forever. Although Washington’s wines sell briskly in the home market, the better limited-production bottlings from the state’s best producers are still largely vino incognito for most consumers.
That’s a pity. Washington’s best wines—and the vast majority of the most exciting bottlings are of the red persuasion—offer superb definition of fruit flavor and juicy acidity. I think of them as midway in style between the big, ripe, high-octane reds of California and the subtler and more soil-driven wines of France.
I was able to sample more than 500 new and upcoming releases on my recent tour and will try another several hundred more before I publish my extensive annual report on Washington’s best in the fall. But here are just a few highlights from my adventures so far:
First, a couple hundred late-release 2007s confirmed what I reported in the pages of the International Wine Cellar last fall: this vintage combines the structure and ripeness of 2005 with the verve of 2006. It’s clearly one of the great ones for Washington.
My early look at the 2008 reds suggests that this cooler vintage produced less consistent quality but plenty of fresh wines with clarity and energy. It’s an excellent year for brisk white wines at moderate alcohol levels.
The state’s streak of three consecutive years in which the better growers could pick grapes with good to excellent ripeness and healthy acidity came to an end in 2009, as a very hot summer made it extremely difficult to produce vibrant white wines. Further complicating matters in ’09 was a savage frost on October 10, which compromised whatever Walla Walla Valley fruit was still hanging on the vines. But it’s way too early to attempt a judgment on the 2009 reds, most of which are still in barrel.
The first set of releases (2007) from Reynvaan Family Vineyards is impressive. And not just the syrahs: don’t miss the winery’s marsanne/viognier blend called Queen’s Road White.
I tasted two very promising barrel samples from Rasa Vineyards last summer, but this time around I enjoyed a seriously interesting collection of finished wines, most of them made from Rhône Valley varieties.
For the first time, this year’s line-up of releases from Efesté Wines featured wines made entirely by talented winemaker Brennon Leighton (’07 and ’08 reds and ’08 and ’09 whites), who took over here in 2007. All indications are that the red wines from this producer will quickly catch up to the superb whites in quality.
Bunchgrass Winery, which has rarely impressed in my past tastings, caught my attention with its 2007 reds this year following a change in ownership and winemaking.
Nefarious Cellars, located in Chelan, showed a solid set of 2009 whites, but the winery’s reds are still a work in progress.
Charles Smith offered an unusually fresh, floral, red-fruity set of K Vintners syrahs, perhaps the most attractive set of wines to date under this label.
For fans of very sweet late-harvest riesling, Poet’s Leap’s 2008 botrytis riesling and rare ice wine will go straight to your third eye.
I enjoyed a consistently vibrant and aromatically pure set of wines from Syncline Wine Cellars (2008 reds and 2009 viognier), all sealed with glass stoppers. (My notes said “What a pleasure to taste wines untouched by cork.”)
The newest set of releases from Gramercy Cellars looks to be the best yet, and I found the usual stellar quality from A-list producers like Betz Family Winery, Cadence Winery, Cayuse Winery, DeLille Cellars, Long Shadows Vintners Collection and Quilceda Creek Vintners.
Finally, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley from Corliss Estates, which I tasted in barrel, holds out the potential to become one of the greatest cabernet-based wines yet produced in Washington State, although I should note that this wine is not slated for release until the fall of 2012. Ten years from now it will be fascinating to taste this superb wine next to the outstanding ’07 flagship cabernet from Quilceda Creek.