by Joel Lall
When we think of serious American wines we tend to gravitate towards California
and Oregon. Washington State wines might not first come to mind, but it consistenly
produces excellent wines that are worthy of the attention of wine connoisseurs.
Origin Behind The Wines
Vines were first planted in 1825 but it was not until the 1860’s that the first winery in Washington was established. In 1960, the American Wine Growers started planting grapes in larger areas and by the late 1970’s there were 2,500 acres under vine, a small area compared to well over 30,000 acres under vines today. Most of the wine is produced in three major valleys: Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley and Yakima Valley.
What makes Washington wines so special? Grapes in Washington State develop in complexity and flavors due to the climate. During the growing season, there is more sunlight, hence a longer growing season. The temperature rarely exceeds the mid 80’s and the cooler climate allows for great acidity in the fruit, especially for white wines produced in the region. The long warm, not hot, days and the cooler nights are ideal for developing the complexity required for big, bold red wines as well as crisp, clean whites. The climate of Washington is divided by the Cascade Mountains. On the western side of the mountains, rainfall is abundant and the temperature is moderately cooler but on the eastern side, which is shielded by the mountains, the rainfall is scant and the climate is more desert-like with greater fluctuation in daytime and nighttime temperature.
Of all the white wine varietals grown in Washington, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are some of the most successful grapes grown here. The Chardonnays produced have great flavors and show excellent acidity. They have hints of minerals, soft tropical fruits and show citrus on the nose with refreshing acidity and a clean finish on the palate.
“We preserve what the vineyards are giving us,” states Bob Bertheau, winemaker at Ste. Michelle Wine Estate. “For our aromatic varietals, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, we clean the juice by removing the dirt or solids to ensure more of the expression of the grape,” he continues, “and use more used oak. For the Chardonnay; however, we look for the solids to provide more of the big mouth feel, especially in the Columbia Valley fruit. We are still learning what grows well where and although we are fairly new in this area, the future looks very promising.”
Companies Working to Get Wines to You
In 1954, Pommerelle Wine Company and National Wine Company merged to form the American Wine Growers, producing mostly fortified wines of local grapes. No one has done more for the wine development in Washington than American Wine Growers; in 1967 they began producing a line of premium wines called Ste. Michelle Vintners supervised by Andre Tchelistcheff, a well renowned winemaker from California. In 1972, Ste. Michelle Vintners planted their first vines in Cold Creek Vineyards in Eastern Washington. In 1992, Piero Antinori of Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori visited Washington, and impressed with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s operations and the wines produced there, formed a partnership which resulted in an excellent wine, Col Solare, a Bordeaux-style red wine made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for the blend are from the Horse Heaven Hills vineyards, which produces fruit with bold tannins and great acidity.
In 1999, Chateau Ste Michelle unveiled yet another mélange, but this time the white varietal was in the blending beakers. Teaming up with one of Germany’s most recognized wine maker, Dr. Ernst Loosen, Ste. Michelle created Eroica, a Riesling with an outstanding mineral, citrus, and floral nose and on the palate tropical fruit with a crisp, clean and dry finish.
The world has their eyes on Washington State and the proof is some of the partnerships developing between Washington and other well renowned wine regions, Germany and Italy to name a couple. “Last year there were 60 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley alone, this year there are 80; the State of Washington is growing, and quickly at that,” commented Mike Wylie, state manager for Ste. Michelle Wine Estate. Currently there are over 400 wineries total in Washington. “The climate is in our favor, we achieve great complexity in our fruit because of excellent growing conditions and we are true to our varietals. We are experiencing exponential growth, wine consumers are starting to appreciate our wines, and we are looking forward to a very exciting future.”
Vincor is another pioneer in the Washington wines industry. In 1982, with the establishment of Hogue, by Mike and Gary Hogue, Washington wines took a big leap forward in exposure and with consumers. Their Genesis, labeled appropriately, was the start of grand winemaking. With more than twenty years of winemaking experience in Washington, Hogue Cellars has discovered what really makes the grapes in this area so special - the micro climates, the soil and the longer average sunlight during the summer hours.
Why Pay Attention?
Why should you be paying attention to Washington State’s white wines? Because the evolving American palate is demanding something more than the overly oaked, buttery wines that have generally overwhelmed the wine market. Now more than ever, consumers are adventurous, educated and demand more from their wines.
The red wines of Washington State are demanding their place in the wine arena as well. The red varietals are no less impressive than the white. With soft yet aggressive tannins and perfect fruit and acidity, the red varietals are transformed into some very impressive red wines. A nose of cedar, cassis, dark fruits and vanilla, and soft dry tannins on the palate, they are cleaned with balanced acidity.
No wonder with all these innovations going on in viticulture and viniculture, Washington State is at the cutting edge of winemaking, and as the vines get older we can expect better grapes with more concentration of fruit, balanced with perfect acidity; in short, outstanding wines. Compared to California and rest of the wine producing world, Washington State is just a newcomer, but if you wait another few years you will be pleasantly surprised with the wines from this up and coming region.
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