New Releases from Washington State

Washington State wines in general remain reasonably priced. At the high end, the reds are not cheap, but the finest examples match up well against the best cabernet- and merlot-based wines from Bordeaux and California. Many Washington insiders still maintain that merlot is the state star red variety, but with each passing year I am leaning toward its cabernet sauvignons. And blends of these varieties, often with some cabernet franc added to the mix, are increasingly the most complete wines of all. Today, a new generation of winemakers is more likely than ever before to mix and match juice from multiple varieties and two or more vineyard sites to make better wines. Still, it worth stating the obvious: Washington State may now be the most important source of high-quality merlot outside the right bank of Bordeaux.

During my extensive tastings of current and upcoming releases in Washington in July, and subsequently in New York, I found numerous red wines meriting outstanding ratings. Still, it only the top dozen or so producers who really understand the importance of controlling vine yields. Too many estates seem loath to do the shorter pruning and fruit-thinning necessary to get fully ripe flavors and tannins and serious concentration. At a large group tasting I did of Yakima Valley wines, for example, I waded through a dismal succession of green, dilute, dry-edged merlots and cabernets. This tasting also suggested that many of Washington winemakers are not aware of - or simply ignore - the critical importance of keeping their barrels topped.

Still, there are more rich, satisfying Washington State red wines on the market today than ever before, thanks to a string of favorable vintages and the continuing emergence of talented new winemakers. The day before the depressing Yakima event, I tasted a much more impressive set of wines in Walla Walla, all from wineries based in or around that town. There were a host of standouts as well the day after the Yakima debacle, at a major tasting in the Seattle area of the best wines from the so-called Westside winemakers - those who live on the cooler coastal side of the Cascades even though their fruit comes almost entirely from the high desert in Yakima and Walla Walla Valley. The best of today Washington State cabernets, merlots and blends are world-class wines with substantial early appeal and at least medium-term aging potential.

Recent vintages. Most of the reds I tasted were from 2000 and 1999, the whites from 2001 and 2000. My early look at 2001, a moderate growing season that featured very warm fall temperatures, suggests that many white wines benefitted from better than average ripeness while being picked early enough to retain sound acidity. The advance word on the reds is that the vintage produced some of Washington richest wines to date.

By many accounts, the highly successful 2000 growing season produced red wines that combine the nearly exotic ripeness of 1998 and the structure of 1999, and my tastings confirmed that view. The climate was essentially benign, with a mild spring and a warmer than normal summer leading to an early veraison. Moderate temperatures in the early fall allowed for extended hang time and steady flavor accumulation. Acidity levels were generally sound, even in the white varieties. Merlot ripened earlier than in 1999, giving concentrated fruit and fully mature flavors. Still, more than one insider maintained that vintage 2000 favored cabernet sauvignon, while '99 was better for merlot than for cabernet.

Nineteen ninety-nine yielded a crop of subtle, classic merlots and cabernets. This was one of Washington coolest growing seasons on record; sustained hot weather did not arrive until August. After a very late veraison, serious growers carried out considerable fruit thinning to ensure that the rest of the grapes got ripe. The weather then remained mostly warm and dry in September and early October, with very cool nighttime temperatures helping the fruit retain healthy levels of acidity. Many Washington State producers consider 1999 the best vintage of the '90s, thanks to its combination of high grape sugars and better than average acids.

This year I tasted recommendable bottlings under no fewer than 59 labels, up from 51 last year and 44 in 2000. Additional wines from these producers that rated 83 or 84 points are listed with an asterisk. (I also tasted one or more releases that did not rate at least 85 points from another 17 wineries.)