Cabernet and merlot—and Bordeaux blends that may also include cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec—account for a high percentage of Washington State’s most serious and successful red wines. While many of these wines come from two or more vineyards, some of the best among them are from a single site. Careful blending of varieties has resulted in better-balanced, more complex and complete wines, the finest of which can be compared to top wines from California and Bordeaux.
Yes, there are still too many flawed wines that have no place in a civilized society: wines that are oxidized, gritty, overly tannic, heavy, over-acidified, or just plain underripe. But at the level of the most talented producers, Washington’s red wines offer terrific definition of fruit flavor and generally juicy acidity; they are typically more vibrant and less alcoholic than big reds from California but riper and fruitier (i.e., less obviously soil-driven) than wines from Bordeaux.
And, Washington’s wines are priced as if their makers actually plan to sell them. Most “expensive” Washington wines are priced between $40 and $60, or a fraction of the cost of big names from California, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Only a handful of wines retail for more than $75. When I taste excellent cabernet- or merlot-based wines for $30 or less, as I did repeatedly in my tastings of new Washington releases this year for coverage in the bimonthly International Wine Cellar (Issue 153), I get charged up. Here are a few well-priced standouts, including a few late releases from the splendid 2007 harvest.
By the way, don’t think of the rain forest of the Olympic peninsula and the drizzle and overcast sky of Seattle when you think of Washington State wine. On the contrary: most of Washington’s grapes are grown in the desert east of the Cascade mountains, in the Columbia and Yakima River Valleys, where annual rainfall is so low that the vineyards must be irrigated. Washington’s grape vines benefit from long daylight hours during the summer, and a longer growing season than California. Although daytime temperatures can be quite hot, occasionally surpassing 100 degrees, generally cool September nights allow the grapes to retain healthy acidity, resulting in wines with noteworthy intensity of varietal character.
The 2008 “M” Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley ($22) from Basel Cellars offers complex, claret-like scents of redcurrant, tobacco leaf, mocha, fresh herbs, spice and graphite. It’s silky and seamless on the palate, with a restrained sweetness and plenty of inner-mouth energy. Cadence Winery’s 2008 Coda Red Wine Red Mountain ($27), recently featured as a Winophilia Pick, is a Bordeaux blend with enticing aromas of blueberry, cocoa powder, spices and flowers. It’s also quite juicy and light on its feet, with harmonious acidity giving definition to its berry and spice flavors.
L’Ecole No. 41’s 2007 Merlot Columbia Valley ($24) displays ripe aromas of plum, red berries, cedar and spices; intense, nicely delineated flavors of cherry, berries and spices; and a youthfully clenched finish featuring good verve. Canoe Ridge’s 2007 Merlot Estate Grown Columbia Valley ($25) offers varietally accurate aromas of redcurrant, tobacco, chocolate and spicy oak. I like this juicy, intense wine’s claret-like cut and energy, its graphite minerality and its solid spine. Another wine in a distinctly Bordeaux style is the 2008 Sophie de Rollat Meritage Red Wine Columbia Valley ($29) from Chateau Rollat, which offers aromas of redcurrant, black cherry and tobacco complicated by a note of tarry oak. It’s juicy, bright and pliant, with good lift and balance to its dark berry, maraschino cherry and tobacco flavors, and a firm backbone of acids and tannins.
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s largest winery, is a rich source of red wine values in the outstanding 2007 vintage. Its 2007 Artist Series Meritage Red Wine Columbia Valley ($28), a Bordeaux blend based on 56% cabernet sauvignon, projects enticing aromas and flavors of blackcurrant, black cherry, licorice, violet and chocolate. It’s a deep and serious blend. I also recommend two vineyard-designated cabernet bottlings from Chateau Ste. Michelle: the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Canoe Ridge Estate Horse Heaven Hills ($28) for its pliant texture and deep, sweet flavors of berries, mint and bitter chocolate, and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Cold Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley ($28), at once more floral and less open-knit in its early texture and sweetness, but with the stuffing to age.