Twenty years ago, a high percentage of Washington’s white wines were inexpensive rieslings, sauvignon blancs and semillons that sold well in the seafood restaurants of Seattle. Chardonnay was also popular locally, as it was virtually everywhere else, even if very few producers were able to make consistently fresh versions in the high-desert climate east of the Cascade mountains.
The good news is that today, new wineries working in cooler microclimates are producing rieslings of real concentration, cut and character. Simple sauvignons have been superseded by much more serious and complex sauvignon/semillon blends à la Bordeaux.
Then too, along with rapid growth in plantings and production of syrah, northern Rhone white grapes have also proliferated in Washington. Each year the number of intriguing viogniers increases, and roussanne and marsanne are also attracting the attention of a talented and well-traveled new generation of winemakers. And while it’s still the case that the number of truly excellent chardonnay producers in the state can be counted on the fingers of two hands, the best of those chards deserve wider recognition.
Here are some of my favorite new Washington white wines, culled from the November/December issue of my bimonthly International Wine Cellar. All of these wines rated at least 90 points in the IWC, and they’re more than worth their prices. One of the reasons they’re so good is that they are not made in industrial quantities. But they’re worthy of a search of the marketplace—or a phone call or e-mail to the winery.
John Abbott has been making one of Washington’s most consistently concentrated and characterful chardonnays in recent years, and his Abeja 2011 Chardonnay Washington State ($36) is a standout. This is a broad, generous wine, with enticing lift to its stone fruit, quince, spice and sexy vanillin oak aromas and flavors; a complex, tactile palate impression; and a dry, subtle, long finish.
The DeLille Cellars 2011 Doyenne Roussanne Red Mountain ($34) is one of the best Washington versions of roussanne I’ve tasted to date. The nose captivates with aromas of orange flower, nectarine and brown spices. It’s ripely fruity and quite dry, with considerable flesh enlivened by bright acidity. This slightly exotic white wine, reminiscent of a northern Rhone example, finishes with an intriguing saline nuance.
The Brian Carter Cellars 2011 Oriana White Wine Yakima Valley ($25), an idiosyncratic blend of 51% viognier, 35% roussanne and 14% riesling, begins with aromas of crisp apple, anise, mint, spices and citrus zest. It’s juicy, fresh and pure in the mouth, with apple and lemon flavors framed by ripe acidity and lifted by a delicate floral quality. The blend’s positive bitterness and hint of brown spices on the finish should make it flexible at the table.
K Vintners is better known for its numerous vineyard-designated syrah bottlings, but the pale green-yellow 2011 Viognier Art Den Hoed Vineyard Yakima Valley ($25), done entirely in neutral barrels, is a stunner for its price. Aromas of lemon drop, peach and mint are at once bright and musky. In the mouth, the wine is nicely dry but shows a touch of oiliness that reminds me of a Condrieu. Flavors of peach, grapefruit, lemon and nutmeg are framed by firm acidity and accented by minerality. This impressive viognier finishes with excellent sappy, saline persistence.
Buty Winery’s 2011 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle Columbia Valley ($25), in the style of a white Bordeaux, shows musky aromas of mint and hazelnut. It’s broad and fine-grained in the mouth, with enough lively acidity to give shape and lift to its soft citrus, lanolin and hazelnut flavors. At once lightly oily and quite dry on the lingering finish, this is a very successful blend.
Finally, the Cadaretta 2011 SBS White Wine Columbia Valley ($23), an aggressively priced 76/24 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon done in stainless steel, is more Loire- than Bordeaux-like in style, beginning with its pale color. Pungent aromas of grapefruit, pineapple, minerals and nettles lead to an intense, very ripe palate featuring grapefruit pith and floral oils. This highly aromatic blend finishes dry and uncompromising, with excellent minerally grip.