New Releases from Washington State

If Washington State's top producers are indeed aiming to make wines of greater finesse, as is the trend nowadays across much of the New World, their efforts have been facilitated by a pair of back-to-back cooler growing seasons in 2010 and 2011.  And if you think my scores for the Washington wines I tasted this year are higher than ever before, you're right.  Not only are new and talented producers continuing to emerge every year, but the more temperate conditions of '10 and '11 enabled many winemakers to craft balanced, fresh, delineated wines that avoid the overripe character and rougher tannins that often characterize the hotter years.
In much of the high desert of Washington, as in most of California's key growing regions, the challenge for growers is to get full phenolic ripeness before sugars go too high and acidities fall to dangerously low levels.  And for white wines, of course, cooler growing seasons without bursts of summer or harvest-time heat allow talented winemakers to craft fresh, aromatically complex wines with energy and precision, as opposed to wines blurred by high alcohol or dulled by low acidity (or, for that matter, thrown out of whack by excessive acidification).  Just as cooler growing seasons in France produced a host of compellingly brisk, soil-inflected white wines in the 2010 and 2008 vintages, in Washington 2011 and 2010 are potentially outstanding years for whites.  And the better producers have also made very successful red wines with the structure to age, in most instances without the alcoholic excesses of wines from warmer years.  During my tastings in Washington in July, a number of the state's top growers and winemakers made it clear to me that they prefer cooler, longer growing seasons, all other things being equal.

Although there are some significant differences between these two harvests, says Cadence Winery's Ben Smith, "in the end the two vintages were more similar than different, and will certainly stand out from any other pair of vintages in the last 25 years in Washington."  In short, both of these vintages are capable of providing outstanding, aromatically complex wines with excellent backbone for aging, assuming that controlled crop levels and conscientious vineyard work produced phenolically ripe fruit.

Both seasons started cool and damp.  In 2010, yields began a bit low owing to the previous hard winter, and growers in Walla Walla Valley in particular had to be vigilant against mildew pressures all through the summer, said Marty Clubb of L'Ecole No. 41.  "I do think we ended up with mostly clean fruit in 2010, but we had to work at it.  Grape sugars were slightly lower in both vintages, relative to normal.  Both years showed early flavor and color development in the reds."

Billo Naravan, who makes some extraordinary wines under his own Rasa label and for clients like Mackey Vineyards, told me that "botrytis was present in all varieties, including reds.  Wineries that didn't understand how to handle it effectively--especially for their reds--did not make great wines in 2010."  On the other hand, both years brought excellent acidity for white wines, and in 2010 the riesling (Naravane has been making some of Washington's most intensely flavored and convincing rieslings in recent years) benefited from some noble rot.

Success in 2010 depended to a great degree on site and farming practices.  Despite the coolness of the year, said Cadence's Ben Smith, "we got surprisingly normal sugar levels."  Acidity levels were generally good to high, and, according to Clubb, some wines can be tart and edgy.  But he believes that they will be extremely ageworthy by Washington standards.  In my extensive tastings, I was impressed by the focus and energy displayed by the 2010 reds, although clearly some wines were made from grapes that were short of ideal ripeness.  A certain overripe/underripe character is always a possibility in climates in which sugar levels can quickly get ahead of phenolic maturity, but the 2010s are generally far less likely to show roasted notes than are wines from the preceding and much warmer 2009 growing season.

I should note that Brennon Leighton, who has been crafting some of Washington's most exciting and vibrant white wines in the past few years for Efesté, noted that "in 2010 we did have some high sugars in certain vineyards as we waited for acids to drop out, so that the pHs would be high enough for malolactic fermentations to take place."  But generally alcohol levels are lower in 2010 than they had been in 2009.

If anything, 2011 was a cooler and later growing season than 2010.  There was no period of warm weather in May, as there had been in 2010, and the flowering was extremely late.  Without any sustained heat during the summer, there was nothing to speed up the ripening process.  "But, while heat accumulation was lower than average," said Bob Betz, "the vines didn't do the typical hot-weather shutdown that can be experienced with really hot temperatures.  As a result, berry growth and development continued unimpeded."  Despite moderately warm weather in late summer and early fall, 2011 lagged behind even 2010 in total degree days.  "Cool to start, cool in the middle, cool at the end," said Smith.  "Veraison didn't occur until mid-August at best, with some fruit completing veraison in September."

"Fortunately, the weather stayed dry and sunny well through October," noted Betz, "and we avoided the serious rain issues that so much of Northern California had to contend with.  The grapes developed well and accumulated sufficient sugar and body, but more important, the long hang time led to attractive flavor and phenolic development.  We harvested all the way to Halloween, the latest harvest on record at Betz Family, with the majority of our grapes picked the second and third weeks of October."  According to Naravan, grape sugars averaged about a half-degree Brix lower in 2011 than in 2010 "for most of the vineyards in the state."  Interestingly, while Marty Clubb told me that 2011 was a bit more acidic than normal but not extreme--"particularly for the earlier maturing red sites, which for us is a big chunk of our production"--he still did not need to adjust acid levels at harvest.

My coverage in this issue also includes a host of reds from the very warm 2009 season, a year that produced larger-scaled, higher-alcohol wines that can be wonderfully silky, rich and satisfying.  Some wines, though, were quite low in natural acidity or can be plagued by roasted or even tired flavors and tannins that could have used a bit more time on the vines to become more refined.  The growing season witnessed a hot summer, then a hot spell in late September, then a killer frost on October 10, after which the condition of the grapes deteriorated rapidly and little additional ripening took place.  So some growers lost a significant portion of their fruit that had not yet ripened, while others picked in a panic just before the frost even when their grapes were not phenolically ripe.  But the best farmers were able to harvest ripe fruit in 2009 before the period of frigid weather hit.

Today's wine pricing in Washington.  Happily, prices of the better Washington wines have been stable over the past couple of years, even where fruit prices have gone up in recent vintages.  Although yields were lower than average in 2011 and 2010, many new vineyards are now coming into maturity.  Much of this young-vines fruit is going into less-expensive secondary labels, which are popular in today's more price-sensitive retail market.  Although the best Washington wines continue to sell well in the home market, many producers complain that their out-of-state distributors are cutting back on orders of their most expensive items and focusing on cheaper wines, thus putting a damper on possible price hikes.  This buying behavior is hardly limited to Washington State wines.

IMPORTANT NOTICE to subscribers and Washington wineries:  Due to a sinus infection that took its time finding its next victim, I was unable to taste several sets of samples that arrived at my place after October 1.  As I will be in France through much of November, I plan to taste these remaining wines in early to mid-December.  At this point, I expect to add the notes to this article between December 15 and 20.  I will send an announcement, with a list of the producers added--plus a few additional wines from producers already included in this issue--to all subscribers at that time.  The wines included in this article were tasted in Washington in July and in New York in September and early October.