New Releases from Washington State

As 2007 by now has gained a reputation as one of Washington’s most outstanding and complete vintages of the past generation, this vintage from the state’s better producers has sold well, even in this moribund economy. It remains to be seen whether consumers will pull the trigger on the less consistent 2008s, a vintage that nonetheless has produced many well-delineated, juicy wines.

Washington has one huge plus going for it, at least compared to California: its wines are priced as if their makers actually plan to sell them. Most “expensive” Washington wines are priced between $40 and $60, or a fraction of the cost of big names from California, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Only a handful of wines retail for more than $100, and in nearly every case these bottlings have established track records for excellence and thus benefit from a loyal clientele. When I taste outstanding wines for $30 or less, as I did repeatedly in my tastings of new Washington releases this year, I get charged up. And that doesn’t even include the growing number of very good values in the $20 and under range.

If Washington wineries have not obviously cut their prices in the last year or two, many are making the necessary deals to clear out their old vintages and are pricing their new ones realistically. With many of their long-time customers hesitating to spend $30 or more on a bottle of wine these days, some wineries have shifted more of their volume into lower-priced labels. This has been good for the consumer as there’s now higher-quality juice available in the $15 to $25 range. And syrah seems to be struggling less here than it is in California. Many Washington wineries and their fruit suppliers are convinced that this variety holds out great longer-term potential in Washington, and if they have to cut prices today to sell these wines, they seem willing to do so.

Recent Washington vintages. It’s the 2008 reds that are the focus of this year’s coverage, along with late releases from the superlative 2007 vintage and some early 2009s, mostly whites. Two thousand eight was a late season from start to finish. A cold, wet spring delayed the flowering. The summer was then cooler than it had been in the previous few vintages, with some growers comparing it to 1999. Many growers reduced their crop levels, anticipating that they’d have trouble getting their fruit ripe. White grapes generally came in in mid-September under favorable if cool conditions, while growers let their red grapes hang in an attempt to get better ripeness. Conditions remained cool, with sporadic rain. When crop levels were carefully controlled, the fruit could ripen moderately well. But overcropped vines posed a problem.

Among important red varieties, cabernet sauvignon seems to be the least consistent in quality. There are many very fresh, firm and attractively juicy examples but others that never quite ripened fully and betray some greenness. On the other hand, it was next to impossible to make topheavy, high-alcohol wines with roasted fruit character. As a region, Red Mountain appears to have done very well in 2008. On the whole, the earlier-ripening merlot seems to have done better than cabernet sauvignon, and I was often seduced by the syrahs I tasted, many of which are more perfumed if less voluminous than examples from the previous vintage.

Producers are by no means unanimous on the subject of 2008. Some told me the wines are more structured than the 2007s, but a few wondered if that’s simply a matter of them having less mid-palate flesh to buffer their tannins. David O’Reilly (proprietor of Owen Roe) says his 2008 reds are “warmer than the 2007s, with deeper colors, more tannins and higher pHs.” Cadence’s Ben Smith says they’re higher in acidity than the 2007s, less fat and aromatic today, but with nice mouthfeel and well-integrated structures. Bob Betz reports that his pHs are slightly higher than those of 2007 and 2009. He describes the wines as “structured, but with a juicy roundness,” and suspects that they will be for drinking before the 2007s.

Vintage 2009 was another story. Two thousand nine was a rather extreme growing season by Washington standards. Wind and cool weather until mid-May resulted in an irregular fruit set, with widespread shatter, and then July and much of August were brutally hot. (Mid-July was the warmest here in the last ten years, noted Bob Betz.) The heat wave finally broke in August with some accompanying rain, and the late summer and early fall saw a return to more normal conditions. The harvest began early and was compressed owing to the summer heat; it appears to have favored red wines in general, as many whites are somewhat blurred by elevated alcohol or show a fat, sugary ripeness. Other whites I tasted in recent months display a lightly raisiny character, possibly owing to fruit shriveled during the extended hot period.

The harvest of the red grapes was well advanced when a severe and unusually early freeze struck on October 10 and 11, especially damaging in Walla Walla Valley and in lower-elevation sites in general. The freeze had been forecasted in advance, so many wineries hurried to bring in as much fruit as possible during the days before the frost, whether it was fully ripe or not. This turned out to be a good idea, as the weather remained cold for a week after the freeze, with on-and-off rain and sleet. Fruit that was not brought in immediately after the frost was for the most part in poor condition as the extreme weather killed off the vines’ foliage and put an abrupt end to any further ripening of the grapes. So the vintage will be very largely a tale of two harvests, with some concentrated reds made from low crop levels and small berries picked reasonably ripe before the freeze.

My tastings in Washington in July and in New York in September and October also turned up many more exceptional 2007s. This vintage is a no-brainer for collectors of Washington wines, even if a number of them appear to be closing down now. The better 2007s have it all: sweetness, flesh, depth, energy, ripe tannins, and the balance for a long and slow evolution in bottle. The arc of the growing season was nearly perfect, and the best wines reflect this. It was difficult to make blowsy wines with excessive alcohol and insufficient natural acidity, although naturally some producers managed to pull off this trick by waiting too long to harvest. Others compromised their superb raw materials through overextraction or careless élevage. But for a goodly percentage of the producers whose wines I taste every year, 2007 is about as good as it gets.