Barely ten years ago Washington State was about cabernet, merlot and inexpensive riesling, with some chardonnay thrown in for good measure. While those four grapes still account for about three-quarters of the state’s vineyard acreage, talented and innovative winemakers today are producing excellent wines from an expanding range of other varieties, beginning but not ending with viognier, roussanne, marsanne, grenache blanc, semillon, gewurztraminer and even gruner veltliner among whites and red grapes like grenache, petit verdot, malbec, mourvedre and tempranillo. The result is a wider range of wine styles than ever before–and a number of exciting discoveries during my annual tastings of new Washington releases, available in the just-published issue of the International Wine Cellar.
The state’s high desert climate, with its wide diurnal temperature swings and long growing season, is proving to be remarkably flexible for white grapes (I plan to look at offbeat reds in a separate article), and not just in atypically cool years like 2010 and 2011.
White Rhône varieties (mostly viognier but also roussanne and marsanne) now account for a growing percentage of Washington’s most interesting white wines, with pinot gris coming up fast (this variety barely existed in Washington as recently as 2000). Sauvignon blanc and semillon also produce excellent wines in Washington, even if vineyard acreage devoted to the latter grape has declined sharply over the past 15 years. Please note that the best Washington wines are generally made in small quantities, and distribution can be spotty. Your best bet may be to contact the wineries directly for wine or for information on their distributors in your area.
Viognier has gained traction in the marketplace in spite of its limited vineyard acreage, and today a growing number of wines can compete with Condrieu for immediate appeal. Viogniers from aMaurice Cellars have been consistently successful in recent years and the 2010 Viognier Columbia Valley ($25) is attractively fruit-driven and smooth. Its aroma of fresh peach leads to a juicy, pure palate featuring cool flavors of lemon peel, kumquat and quince. I also loved K Vintners‘ 2012 Viognier Columbia Valley ($25), from a vineyard planted at an altitude of 1,400 feet. It entices with aromas of lemon candy and lime and shows a refreshingly tart quality to its white peach and ginger flavors. This focused, lightly saline viognier finishes ripe and complex, with tree fruit flavors and no rough edges.
My recent tastings also turned up perhaps the finest 100% roussanne wine I’ve had to date from Washington, the Rotie Cellars 2012 Northern White Marsanne Washington State ($28). This full yellow wine displays aromas of yellow fruits, wild herbs and honey accented by flowers and spices. It’s intensely flavored, vibrant and classically dry, offering excellent grip to its slightly candied lemon drop and vanilla flavors. The juicy, very long finish boasts impressive volume and cut, not to mention personality.
Two Vintners added a bit of marsanne to its Grenache Blanc 2012 Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley ($25), which contributed palate presence to this intense, very fresh, firmly built wine. Pure aromas of floral white fruits and mint lead to a vibrant palate featuring citrus and stone fruit flavors. It’s a very good value at its price.
A couple of pinot gris bottlings also caught my eye in this year’s tastings of new releases from Washington. The Rasa Vineyards 2012 Heritage Pinot Gris Kilian Vineyard Yakima Valley ($20), weighing in at 15.1% alcohol, includes 10% botrytized grapes but is actually bone-dry. Made with eight hours of skin contact, this fascinating wine leads off with honey and peach aromas. The palate impression is creamy and intense, with white peach and orange zest flavors enlivened by vibrant acidity. Most impressive today is the wine’s dense, savory, building finish. Equally concentrated was the Tranche Cellars 2011 Pinot Gris Columbia Valley ($18), whose perfumed aromas of white peach, apple and spices are complicated by a leesy nuance. This juicy, intense wine shows very good body and an impression of salty extract to its sharply delineated apple and spice flavors. Its dry, saline finish reminded me of a low-sugar Alsace pinot gris.
Efesté Wines has produced consistently superb, uncompromising white wines in recent years from the cool Evergreen Vineyard. The winery’s 2012 Feral Sauvignon Blanc Evergreen Vineyard Columbia Valley ($20), vinified with indigenous yeasts, boasts wild aromas of gooseberry, lime, lemon ice and grapefruit. It’s juicy, bright and penetrating but not overly austere or hard, as it also possesses very good breadth and density. A strong musky grapefruit pith flavor is cut by lively acidity. For a Washington white wine value, it’s hard to beat the L’Ecole No. 41 2012 Semillon Columbia Valley ($15), which offers aromas of candied pineapple, lemon peel and lanolin. It’s juicy, smooth and nicely concentrated, with well-integrated acidity framing the lemon and honey flavors. This tactile, persistent semillon, which is blended with 13% sauvignon blanc, finishes dry and lemony but not harsh.