If you want to understand what makes Washington state’s wines so delicious — and sometimes so unique — all you need to do is just look at the place.
At such a northerly latitude and with an average of 300 sunny days a year (at least on its eastern, grape-growing side), sunlight in Washington lasts longer during the growing season, 17 hours or so each day.
Sunlight helps grapevines with their photosynthesis, thus flavor and aroma development; it also augments pigment saturation (on us, we call it “tanning”). Ever notice how Washington reds are a light shade of black?
Also, the soils in eastern Washington are great for grapes. They are deep, well-drained and cover a massive area, and sport just enough nutrients. In addition, constant wind over them helps prevent mold, rot and fungus.
Fifteen thousand years ago, in the thawing of glacier buildups in what we now call Montana, and then several times between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago during bouts of freeze and thaw, great floods inundated eastern Washington with what are called the Missoula flood sediments. Very important, these soils, especially the top 10 feet or so, called loess (a form of windblown alluvial sediment and sand), are resistant to the vine louse phylloxera; nothing beats that in a vineyard.
But I think the most important thing to notice about the majority of the vineyard portion of Washington is simply where it is: at the eastern, not western, end of the state, one of the driest farming lands in the nation.
We forget that because of our common image of western Washington and its rain-soaked vistas, gray skies and coffee-cuddling masses. True, but whereas Seattle averages nearly 40 inches of rain a year, eastern Washington makes due with a mere six to eight.
This is the “rain shadow” of both the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges that at once protects the eastern portion of the state from wet weather systems as it starves grapevines of humidity and water, actually a good thing for wine.
Although there is a lot of water in eastern Washington – it’s called the mighty Columbia River and its tributaries – it’s close to the ground, where it does the most good for grapevines, making it available for irrigation as well as a moderating influence for temperature fluctuations day to night, another good thing for vines and their wines.
Here are a number of Washington state wines to recommend, both white and red, in order of price.
2011 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot Indian Wells, Columbia Valley: You’ll see a few recommends from me from this house; it’s close to being a no-brainer. Merlot is the second-most-planted red grape variety in the state (after cabernet sauvignon), and this exhibits all that we miss about merlot, post-”Sideways”: chocolate-wrapped cherry, hint of mint, effusive dark red fruit character, can’t-see-‘em tannins. $19
2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle-Loosen Riesling “Eroica,” Columbia Valley: Riesling is the second-most-planted white grape variety in the state, after chardonnay, and this is the world’s largest producer of riesling. In concert with a German house, it makes this version, a literal “best of both worlds”: It’s fleshy but finishes crisp. $20
2008 Francis Tannahill Gewurztraminer “Dragonfly,” Columbia Valley: The current release is just a year younger, but if you can find some of this, go for it; the harvest was perfect. From very old gewurztraminer vines (planted 1972), it concentrates all that you want in the variety: rose water, litchi, power with grace, persistence (even after 3 days’ opening). $22
2012 Cadaretta White Blend “SBS,” Columbia Valley: A blend of 70 percent sauvignon blanc, 30 percent semillon (hence the moniker) for crisp, fresh, clean, even spry Bordeaux-style white; no oak, just fruit. $22
2010 Alder Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills: One-quarter of all grapes planted in the state are cabernet sauvignon. This effort contains small amounts of merlot and malbec as well. It’s a beaut: High-toned and austere as cabernet can be, but with that same linear focus as its moves through the palate, hauntingly persistent in aroma of currants and cocoa as it slinks away. Great value, too. $30
2010 Robert Ramsey Cellars Mourvedre, Horse Heaven Hills: With far less of the “funk” you might find in France — or even many California examples — and more like a monastrell from Spain: perfumes of smoky black fruits, a crunch of black pepper and gorgeous wood integration. $35
2010 Spring Valley Vineyard Cabernet Franc “Kathryn Corkrum,” Walla Walla: Another longtime favorite Washington winery, when I can afford it. The winery just never fails in its massively concentrated, but oh so lithe, red wines, such as this whisperingly herbal cabernet franc. $55
2010 Buty Winery Red Blend “Rediviva of the Stones,” Walla Walla: Another go-to red wine Washingtonian. It is unusual to find blends of syrah and cabernet sauvignon (2/3 syrah, 1/3 cab; touch of mourvedre), but it’s carried off here: huge aromatics, enormous concentration, but suedelike tannins and beautiful presence on the palate. It takes syrah’s plush fruit and ties it into a pretty package with the cabernet. Nice idea. $60