CHICAGOTRIBUNE.COM – Those adhering today to the legendary prompt of 19th-century America — “Go west, young man” — would serve themselves well by not going all the way west, particularly if the goal is to make Pacific Northwest wine.
Coastal Washington has beauty and charms all its own and even produces some of the state’s wine. But eastern Washington is predominantly where the state’s wines come from — most famously its cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling and syrah, among other varietals and blends. The state grows close to 70 grape varieties, after all, in roughly a 60/40 split, red to white. So, if the east is the best in the Northwest, it might cause you to wonder aloud: “East of what?”
Great question. East of the Cascades — the mountain range that acts like a gigantic meteorological checkpoint, keeping the state’s wet weather west and preserving the much drier climate of the east, where vineyards enjoy long, hot sunny days and cool nights. Because of Washington’s northerly latitude, vineyards there enjoy longer days of sunshine than do wine regions to the south, and longer days are good for ripening. When the northern night air rolls in and temperatures dip drastically (as much as 50 degrees in a single day), it helps grapes retain their all-important acidity. You can generally count on bright fruit and vibrant acidity in the wines of Washington, the country’s largest wine-producing state after California.
Washington’s Puget Sound AVA (American Viticultural Area) hugs large stretches of the state’s Pacific coastline, on both the mainland and its many islands, and the Columbia Gorge AVA crosses the border into Oregon. But east of the Cascades and almost completely within Washington, the Columbia Valley AVA is where the overwhelming majority of the state’s wine is grown and produced. About 50,000 acres of grapevines are planted in Washington, most of them in Columbia Valley.
The region is enormous, and within it, there are several smaller AVAs (the state is home to 14 AVAs total), including Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley. And then, as if they were Russian nesting dolls, there are even AVAs inside Yakima Valley: Snipes Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Red Mountain. It all sounds very Wild West, doesn’t it?
I guess you could say that not too long ago (in wine years), Washington actually did have a sort of Wild West feel. Large-scale commercial vineyards started appearing in the 1960s, and as recently as 1981, the state was home to only 19 wineries. By the 1990s, the larger world began to take notice of Washington wines, and by 2001, the number of wineries had jumped to 170. Ten years after that there were 740, and today there are more than 900.
The big, pioneering wineries of the Washington wine industry — Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, to name two — are still thriving, but smaller, startup operations are materializing fairly consistently, even today. Don’t be surprised when the number of Washington wineries exceeds 1,000 and you see even more of it on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. Meanwhile, pick up a few bottles and familiarize yourself with the wines of a western state that knows firsthand that, in at least one local pursuit, going west is a relative term.
Below are notes from a recent tasting of Washington wines. They are listed in ascending order according to price, and by style — whites followed by reds.
2015 Goose Ridge Vineyards g3 Estate Bottled Chardonnay. Green apple, nutmeg, honey, vanilla and a touch of salinity characterize this creamy wine from Columbia Valley. $15
2016 Tamarack Cellars Chardonnay. Tropical fruits, herbal qualities, pear, citrus, toasty notes, zingy acidity and 12.9 percent alcohol. $16
2015 Poet’s Leap Riesling. From Long Shadows Vintners, this off-dry riesling offered stone and tropical fruits, melon, lemon, minerality, crisp acidity and a long finish. $20
2015 Eroica Riesling. This tangy beauty, a collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Germany’s Dr. Loosen, was full of apple, pear, lime and bright, refreshing acidity. $22
2014 Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot. Plum, blackberry, herbs, tobacco and spice led to a lingering finish. $12
2013 Columbia Winery Merlot. Made of 87 percent merlot, this one was floral and toasty, with notes of black cherry and black licorice. $16
2014 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot. A luscious mouthfeel, with ripe blue and black fruit and notes of violets and vanilla in a long, slow finish. $25
2014 Januik Cabernet Sauvignon. This lively and elegant wine offered a medley of plum, blackberry, olives, spice and a cleansing pass of mint. $30
2012 Cadaretta Cabernet Sauvignon. Blueberry, blackberry, vanilla, cocoa, herbs and touches of smoke and earth sum up this wine, with 14.8 percent alcohol. $40
2014 Canvasback Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. This silky wine was full of rich, dark fruits and black olives, plus leather and spice. $40
2014 Buty Winery Conner Lee Vineyard Merlot & Cabernet Franc. This 63/37 blend was floral with plum, cherry, cedar, tobacco and spice. $45
2013 Columbia-Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This luscious, lip-smacking wine was full of blackberry, black cherry and plum, with smoke and leather on the finish. $45
2014 Force Majeure Vineyard Parabellum. Juicy, complex Bordeaux-style blend (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc), layered with dark fruits, nutmeg, vanilla and a hint of smoke. $55
2013 Woodward Canyon Artist Series #22 Cabernet Sauvignon. Plum, dark fruits, forest floor, baking spices, pine, black pepper and bright acidity sum up this wine. $59
2012 Double Canyon/Double Canyon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Violets, blackberry, plum, cedar, tobacco, lively acidity and a persistent finish characterize this Horse Heaven Hills wine. $65
Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune