With over 700 wineries, Washington State produces diverse varietals to satisfy every palate
Washington State has a long and storied grape-growing culture that has a Canadian connection; the first vines planted in Washington in the 1820s were planted by the Hudson’s Bay Company. From those early plantings, vines were planted state-wide by European settlers to the area looking to bring the important aspect of their culture to their new home.
Climate-wise, Washington State has everything grapes need; including up to 17 hours of sunshine during the summer as well as water in the mountain runoff that brings much-needed irrigation to the semi-desert geography east of the Cascade mountain range. Grape growers enjoy a twofold rain-shadow effect where warm, moist air coming in from the Pacific has to pass over two mountain ranges and loses much of its water with each pass. By the time air reaches the Columbia Valley, almost all of its water has dropped on the western side of the range and valleys.
This desert environment is also inhospitable to the famous phylloxera vine louse, which means grape growers do not have to graft European vines to resistant rootstocks. This helps to protect the vines from the potentially bitter-cold winters seen in Washington State, and allows for purer varietal expression of flavour.
In the 1960’s, commercial scale producers began to make wines that gained the attention of oenologists like Andre Tchelistcheff, whose arrival and expertise paved the way for modern winemaking practices in the state. Today, the state has over 700 wineries, which in 2012 produced over 180,000 tons of grapes representing 13 different AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Wine is big business in Washington State and we, as consumers in Alberta, have access to some of the best it has to offer.
Varietal-wise, for whites, chardonnay and riesling reign on high and for reds, the crown goes to cabernet sauvignon, merlot and to a lesser extent syrah. While the popularity of these varietals remains high among producers and consumers alike, there have been some strides with white varietals like pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer and chenin blanc. On the red side, malbec and sangiovese show promise as growers and winemakers look to diversify and better express the terroir of their areas.
Being a keen observer of consumers, retailers and restaurants, it appears that the wines from Washington State are at best, little known in the Alberta market even though there are over 350 wines from the area currently available in the province.
Clearly, we have a lot to learn about the 2nd largest American wine growing area that occupies a latitude between the French wine regions of Bordeaux, has had no bad vintages in past 10 years, and has delivered consistent quality and value, year after year.
Columbia Valley AVA was established in 1984 and in terms of sheer size, is by far the largest in the state. It has the unique characteristic of containing several smaller AVA’s within it such as Walla Walla Valley and Horse Heaven Hills along with several others. The area can act as catch-all for vineyards and producers who grow, buy and sell grapes within its borders to make wines of remarkable beauty and elegance. The most popular varietals grown are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and riesling.
Walla Walla Valley
Also established as an AVA in 1984, this area gained its reputation as the home of Leonetti Cellars whose star rose in the 1980s providing the winery “cult status”. The valley represents almost 100 different wineries producing reds, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and to a lesser extent, cabernet franc, sangiovese, grenache, malbec and petit verdot. On the white spectrum, chardonnay leads the pack with gewürztraminer, riesling, and sauvignon blanc hot on its heels.
Horse Heaven Hills
Established in 2005, this AVA is known for producing some of the best fruit within the larger Columbia Valley AVA. It is home to some of the finest single-vineyard expressions of noble varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah in the United States. International critics have been paying attention as well and the wines from this AVA routinely earn at, or near, perfect scores. It has excellent proximity to the Columbia River and south facing slopes, which allows for ideal ripening conditions for not just the red grapes but also white grapes like chardonnay and riesling.
Columbia Crest is one of the biggest players in wine from Washington State and this entry-level gewürztraminer from the Two Vines line is a perfect “pop and pour” candidate. With lots of lychee and lightly spiced tropical fruit on the nose, and clean, off-dry mineral-tinged sensations on the palate, this is great as an aperitif and would make your holiday turkey/ham sing. Drink now. $15
2012 was a superb vintage for white varietals like chenin blanc in the Columbia Valley and the winemakers at L’Ecole No. 41 took full advantage of it. Their chenin has wonderful mandarin orange and tropical fruit flavours and aromas, and carries just a hint of sweetness over its clean, vivacious finish. While it is drinking beautifully now, chenin blanc does have the ability to age, and it would be interesting to see how this wine is holding up after a couple of years in the bottle. $23
Columbia Crest created their line of H3 wines to celebrate the Horse Heaven Hills AVA and the unique expression of its terroir through a select group of grape varieties. Their 2010 merlot carries a bouquet of milk chocolate and spiced plum. The palate shows dark chocolate dusted cherries with a round mouthfeel and medium acidity. The plums and dark chocolate show on the finish with tannins that are soft and sweet. It is almost like a holiday dessert that is ready to drink now. $25
L’Ecole No. 41 has been a family business since 1983 and since 1989, in the hands of the second generation. Their 2008 Columbia Valley cabernet shows a purplish red medium-hued body with a bouquet of pencil lead, black currants, and light oak with a mineral streak. On the palate, it maintains bright acidity with red currants and well-integrated tannins. It finishes ultra-dry and stylistically is more Bordeaux than Napa. Drink now with decanting or cellar further for long-term enjoyment. $41
With only 393 cases made, Trust Cellars focuses on expressing terroir through their small production wines. The 2010 syrah shows a plum coloured medium body with loads of spice, dried herbs and flowers, and black berry on the nose. The palate is rewarded with elegant acidity, delicate nuance that turns dark over its long length. Cellaring will be rewarded but can be enjoyed now with a decanting period. $42