Washington: wines to watch from a region we need to know
A wine trip to Washington State requires an open mind.
Like most writers, I like to do a little background research before I head somewhere. In the case of Washington, it was revelatory. It’s difficult to know where to begin, as this is a region that is yet to properly punch at its weight, let alone above it.
For starters, there’s the scale of it: America’s second biggest producer after California, with almost 24-thousand hectares under vine; almost a thousand wineries producing up to 18 million cases annually; 14 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), boasting 70 different grape varieties from Aligote to Zinfandel; all contributing more than 6 billion dollars to the local economy.
The rate of growth in the industry is also striking. Whilst vines have been ripped up in the ‘Old World’, plantings here have more than trebled in 20 years, to the extent that a new winery apparently opens in the state every 15 days.
Then there’s the size of the big guns. The state’s largest winery, Chateau Ste Michelle, produces around 7.5 million cases per year – for context, that’s more than twice the output of Oregon – and is the world’s single biggest producer of Riesling.
Picture: The Columbia River, from Horse Heaven Hills
And there’s the unusual terroir. Washington styles itself as ‘The New Epicenter’ for wine, conjuring up something of seismic significance. In this case, that seems appropriate, as the state’s distinctive soils don’t really belong there. It is all the fault of a cataclysmic event some 15-thousand years ago: the Massoula Flood. At the end of the last Ice Age, a natural dam ruptured at the top of the Pacific Northwest, causing some of the biggest floods ever to have occurred on earth. The surge of water more than 100 metres high also brought rocks and soil from further north, which then settled, over thousands of years, into layers of gravel, sand and silt, topped by windblown loess.
This apocalyptical horror actually proved serendipitous for the modern day wine industry because Washington State’s climate has something of a split personality, with the eastern areas where the vines grow getting just a fifth of the annual rainfall experienced in the Puget Sound, around Seattle. Inland, it’s a dry, continental climate, but the soils retain just the right amount of water to support viticulture, a boon in a region that has more sunshine than California’s brightest spot.
… like a Russian doll …
The huge Columbia Valley AVA also incorporates almost all the others in the state, as sub-appellations. The biggest of those, Yakima Valley, is also the oldest, established in 1983. Like a Russian doll, it too has sub-appellations: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, and the scary-sounding Rattlesnake Hills. Some of Washington’s most coveted wines come from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA on the Oregon border, home to the warm, windy, south-facing Champoux Vineyard, planted in 1972. Then there’s historic Walla Walla, boasting the highest concentration of wineries in Washington, some of them established before Prohibition.
Picture: sunset over the biodynamic vines at Hedges Family Estate
So what defines Washington State?
To an extent, it’s what you want it to be. Still in its infancy as a wine region, the state has a ratio of 60/40, red to white. Rosé, or blush – if you must – scarcely features. The big five grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling. There are those who consider Cabernet is King, believing it can rival Napa a few hundred miles south. For what it’s worth, I would put my money on Syrah, perhaps Grenache or even Mourvèdre. Washington State sits at broadly the same latitude as the Northern Rhone, a fact that is reflected in some of the best wines from the region.
In America’s domestic market, Washington’s wines are well known, and much loved, with drinkers in the booming city of Seattle – home to Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon – fuelling the demand. I was there for the excellent annual ‘Taste Washington‘ event, to which people flocked from all over the United States.
… untapped potential …
In the UK, it’s a different story.
“Oh yes, Washington State. I really like those wines. Where can I find them?”, said a good friend shortly after my visit. A pertinent question, as it is trickier than I had thought.
Despite the celebrated diversity of the UK market, I have struggled to find retail availability for a Washington wine to feature on my monthly BBC radio show, and I cannot recall ever seeing more than one or two on UK wine lists. For British drinkers, California rules, but surely it is odd that it’s easier to find a wine from tiny Oregon (just 1% of the USA’s wine production) than from its bigger northern neighbour? Washington State offers untapped potential, albeit at a price.
“The wines aren’t cheap, so we are asking the consumer to put their faith in a 25 quid wine from a region that they don’t know”, says James Hocking, who has been successfully importing North American wines for two decades. “I have always found Washington’s wines to be reliably good, but market take-up to be relatively poor.”
So what’s the answer? “There’s not an easy solution”, he tells me, “Sadly, a lot of it comes down to price. You need to target an affluent consumer who buys from California, to tempt them to go a step further.”
Hocking believes it could test the resolve of Washington’s producers. “Some of our Californian clients could sell all of their wines at the cellar door, probably twice over, but they have been determined to build a global brand, so they sat down with us and looked at their prices.”
Picture: The world-famous Seattle Public Market
An opportunity that might help mitigate a compromise on price is organic and biodynamic winemaking. With its sunshine, warmth and dry winds, Washington State offers rich potential.
Badger Mountain Winery was the first in the state to be certified organic, in 1990. Its founder Bill Powers was subsequently inducted into the Washington Wine Hall of Fame, rewarded for his prescience. Mickey Dunne, who now runs the winery, believes organic offers opportunities for the state: “it’s hot and it’s dry, so for farming organically, we’re in as good a spot as there is”.
A step further, some of the finest wines we tasted on our trip came from Hedges Family Estate in the small, scenic Red Mountain AVA. Established by a local, Tom Hedges, and his Champenoise wife Anne-Marie, it converted to biodynamic more than a decade ago, followed by certification in 2011. Daughter Sarah Hedges Goedhart is now winemaker, her brother Christophe Hedges is general manager: “Biodynamic was a simple decision”, he says, “we didn’t want our children to grow up in a world of skull and cross bones and ‘do not enter’ signs”.
Washington wines to watch out for:
Although this piece originally appeared in The Buyer, I have changed the wines in this list, to ensure they all have UK retail availability. I have added links where possible (they are not sponsored). Sadly, lack of availability means I have left out some fabulous wines from Reynavaan and Seven Hills in this list, but if you’d like to see the original list it’s here in the Buyer.
Hedges Family Estate 2010 ‘Descendants Liegeois Dupont’ Syrah (Roberson Wines £35). Syrah shines in Washington and this is its brightest star. Dense, dark and fascinating, with foraged blackberry, violets and juicy purple plum, cinnamon, toasted clove and chewy red liquorice. Biodynamically farmed, this is a complex feast, with a gentle touch and a distinctive varietal signature.
Hedges Family Estate CMS White 2018 (Roberson Wines £18), this wine is bat shit crazy, but it works. 80% Sauvignon Blanc, the remainder Chardonnay and Marsanne. Gooseberry and green pepper aromas lead, with fennel and mixed fresh herbs. On the palate it is crisp, refreshing and deliciously savoury. Good value too.
Betz Family Winery ‘La Côte Patriarche 2016 Syrah (Vinum have a selection of the Betz Syrah, from £50+) another great Syrah, with black pepper, blackberry and peppered salami leading into a surprisingly fresh, delicate wine, with red cherries and blueberries dancing around an enticingly wild core.
Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2018 (£12 from Ministry of Drinks) from celebrated Washington winemaker Charles Smith; if ever a wine was designed for Asian food, it was this. Bright, zingy lime sherbet, lychee and ripe pear, it’s technically off dry, but balanced by the searing acidity. A perfect pairing for a Thai green curry, as this can take the heat. Good value too.
Eroica Riesling 2016 (£26.50 from Great Western Wine) from a partnership between the mighty Ste Michelle and Germany’s Ernst Loosen, this is a notch up. Sleak, elegant and sophisticated with zippy lime sherbet, tinned mandarins and wet pebbles, the robust acidity giving an assertive spine of freshness.
CS ‘Substance’ 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Morrisons £15) another one from Charles Smith (hence the ‘CS’), this Cab’ is nicely judged and very accessible/gluggable. Plenty of ripe dark cherries, and juicy plum, with a sizzle of spice. A nice barbecue wine at a great price, so a real flag carrier for Washington State.
Gramercy Cellars L’Idiot du Village 2015 (Uncorked £39) Bizarrely, I tasted this in the UK, rather than on my trip to Washington. This wine apparently has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why. Made by a top Manhattan Sommelier-turned-Walla-Walla-winemaker, Greg Harrington, this Mourvèdre is something of a drag queen: pretty and floral on the nose, fruity and fun, but with real muscle underneath. Think leather, smooth tannins and dark spice.
Chateau Ste Michelle 2016 Columbia Valley Merlot (£16.50 from Great Western Wine). I loved this, despite it being far from a favourite grape of mine. This is a smouldering, smooth and subtly spicy rich feast of ripe blackberries and cherry. Emphatically an American take on Merlot, but a real crowd pleaser, the alcohol is nicely judged at 13.5%.
If you enjoyed this, check out my trip to neighbouring Oregon, including the super cool urban wineries of Portland – here