Most of Washington’s grapes are grown in the desert east of the Cascade mountains. With summers frequently marked by blazing-hot daytime temperatures and annual rainfall so low that the vineyards must be irrigated, white wine is not the first thing that springs to mind. But generally cool September nights allow the grapes to retain healthy acidity, resulting in wines with noteworthy intensity of varietal character. Needless to say, acid retention is at least as much of a boon to white wines as it is to the cabernet-, merlot- and syrah-based reds on which Washington’s position in the world wine is based.
Although more than half of Washington’s wines are whites, most of them are inexpensive bottlings aimed at the casual consumer. But in my annual tastings of new Washington releases for the current issue of the International Wine Cellar, I turned up a number of more serious whites that merit the attention of wine lovers looking for concentration of flavor at fair prices. These wines are rarely made in large quantities, but they are worth a search of the marketplace—or perhaps a phone call or e-mail to the winery.
Sauvignon blanc in Washington can be wishy-washy when crop levels are too high, or when the fruit is dominated by new oak barrels. A notable exception is Woodinville Wine Cellars’ 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Columbia Valley ($18), which is made entirely in stainless steel, with its malolactic fermentation blocked to preserve fresh acidity. This wine offers very pure aromas of lemon drop and ripe grapefruit, along with a hint of tropical fruits. It’s intensely flavored and tactile, with a touch of sweetness to its bright fruit and crushed herb flavors, and a long, vibrant, palate-dusting finish.
More expensive but consistently one of the handful of elite white wines from Washington is the DeLille Cellars 2010 Chaleur Estate White Wine Columbia Valley ($34), an 80/20 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon in the style of a white wine from the Graves region of Bordeaux. Its nose alone is worth the price of admission, combining musky curry powder and cumin notes with scents of pineapple oil and chlorophyll. It boasts excellent acidity to frame and intensify the flavors of peach, citrus and basil. Best of all, the suave finish conveys an impression of moderate alcohol.
The L’Ecole No. 41 2010 Luminesce White Wine Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley ($19) is another very successful white Bordeaux blend (in this instance, two-thirds semillon and one-third sauvignon blanc). Full yellow in color, it offers high-pitched aromas of citrus fruits, spices, minerals and flowers, with lower-toned exotic fruits adding another dimension. On the palate, it’s dry and juicy, showing noteworthy intensity and purity to its citrus, pear and mineral flavors.
Along with the rise in popularity of Washington syrah in recent years has come growing interest in viognier, the scented white grape that, like syrah, also reaches its apotheosis in the northern Rhône Valley. One of my favorites this year was the àMaurice Cellars 2010 Viognier Columbia Valley ($25), which was aged in used barrels. It offers pristine aromas and flavors of nectarine and spices, with strong acidity giving the wine a delightfully refreshing, penetrating quality.
Chardonnay is Washington’s most popular white variety in terms of vineyard acreage, but the number of truly concentrated and consistently excellent examples is limited. One of the best values I found in this year’s tastings was Januik Winery’s 2009 Chardonnay Cold Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley ($25), a juicy, supple, nicely concentrated wine with musky aromas of stone fruits and spices and lovely acidity for its warm vintage. This broad, aromatic chardonnay finishes subtle and dry, with its oak component in harmony with its fruit. I also liked the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2009 Chardonnay Canoe Ridge Estate Horse Heaven Hills ($22) for its distinctly cool aromas of pear, apple and menthol, and for the delicacy and definition of its lemon and floral flavors. This persistent, firm wine also manages to avoid the warm character of so many white wines from this vintage.
Finally, among “serious” rieslings from Washington, the pale-colored Long Shadows Vintners Collection 2010 Riesling Poet’s Leap Columbia Valley ($20) is once again a standout. Beginning with clean aromas of lime, stone fruits, anise and flower, it’s refreshing at the core, with a light sweetness adding sex appeal to the flavors of apple, pear and pastry dough. The overwhelming majority of Washington’s rieslings are of the cheap-and-cheerful ilk, but more ambitious examples like this one make it clear that well-chosen sites and winemaking talent can produce wines with precise varietal character and plenty of verve.