Headway and Hurdles

Washington builds on its reputation with another outstanding vintage, but taming tannins remains a challenge

From the Aug. 31, 2017, issue

With just 50 years of winemaking history, Washington is still fine-tuning its status in the world of wine. “I have to convince people sometimes that we’re not on the other side of the Potomac,” winemaker Christian Sparkman says, half in jest, of some consumers’ lingering confusion of his region with the nation’s capital.

Over the past decade or so, the caliber of Washington wines has steadily risen, and the state’s reputation has soared. But it’s clear that the engine is just getting started. The energy is there. Young winemakers are making a mark, new vineyards are being planted in once-unheard-of areas, and growers continue to explore the terroir potential of established regions such as Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla and Red Mountain. Yet hurdles remain.

This is my takeaway after reviewing more than 400 wines in our Napa office since our previous report on the category (“Quality Quotient,” Dec. 31, 2016). I became lead taster for Washington at the beginning of the year, and we’ve also shifted our annual analysis to an earlier issue date; if any of your favorite bottlings from past reports are missing, look for their reviews in upcoming coverage. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wine tasted for this report is available.)

About 40 percent of the wines under review earned outstanding scores of 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. Overall, the 2014 vintage rates 92 points, while 2015 receives a preliminary rating of 92-95, giving Washington four outstanding vintages in a row.

Though Washington continues to produce a little bit of everything, from Riesling to Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah dominate, with Merlot a strong player as well. This year, Syrah and other Rhône-style reds stood out, accounting for seven of the 10 highest-scoring wines in this report.

Winemaker Christophe Baron continues to set the standard, contributing two of the top wines from his Cayuse label. The Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2014 (95 points, $85) is impressively built, with raspberry, crushed rock and smoky bacon aromas that lead to sleek flavors, and the Syrah Walla Walla Valley En Cerise Vineyard 2014 (95, $85) is impeccably structured, with vivid aromas of smoky raspberry and stony mineral and deep, harmonious flavors of cherry, pepper and orange zest.

Keeping things in the neighborhood, Reynvaan harvests its Syrah Walla Walla Valley In the Rocks 2014 (95, $70) from a vineyard adjacent to En Cerise. The wine is dynamic and agile, showing expressive crushed stone, blackberry and smoky cracked pepper flavors, with velvety tannins.

Six Syrahs by winemaker Charles Smith earned scores of 93 points or higher, with his newest cuvée leading the pack. The K Syrah Walla Walla Valley Powerline Estate 2014 (95, $45) is a knockout, showing explosive smoky roasted meat and floral blackberry notes. Smith also landed one of the few whites among the top tier: the refined Sixto Chardonnay Washington Uncovered 2014 (94, $35), which offers a core of minerally acidity, with apple and spicy Meyer lemon flavors.

Washington is known for good values, and this year there are plenty to choose from. The Tenet Syrah Columbia Valley The Pundit 2015 (90, $25) is a snappy red with black currant and smoky mint notes; the 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2015 (89, $12) is supple and charming; the Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot Columbia Valley Indian Wells 2014 (89, $18) is sleek and well-framed, with black cherry and spice aromas; the Tamarack Firehouse Red Columbia Valley 2015 (89, $16) is a lively and easygoing kitchen-sink blend; and the Hogue Riesling Columbia Valley 2015 (88, $8) is ideal for summer sipping, with supple, off-dry peach and orange sorbet flavors.

The 2014 and 2015 growing seasons were nearly twins, part of a trio of warm seasons that began in 2013.

“Things usually cool off in September, but it just didn’t back off,” says winemaker Caleb Foster of Bookwalter, referring to 2014, where summer temperatures occasionally reached 110° F. Foster produced two impressive Bordeaux-style red blends from the year: The Bookwalter Chapter 7 Conner-Lee Vineyard Columbia Valley 2014 (94, $100) is plush and expressive, featuring a complex core wrapped in supple flavors of red currant, orange zest and spicy mocha, while the Conflict Conner-Lee Vineyard Columbia Valley 2014 (93, $60) is sleek and refined, deeply layered with cherry, mocha and spice notes that sail along on polished tannins.

“2013 and 2012 having a baby” is how Christian Sparkman describes 2014. “The wines are rich and lush, and have finesse, and that sometimes eludes us in Washington.” His top ’14 red is the Sparkman Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Holler 2014 (93, $32), refined and beautifully structured, with smoky plum, stony mineral and sandalwood notes that finish with big but graceful tannins.

The 2015 season was even hotter, getting off to an early start and finishing in record time. Canopy management and crop size were issues as growers strove to downplay the impact of the heat. In the end, however, though the crop was larger, the grapes were generally small, which created the potential for intense, tannic wines.

Sparkman has two outstanding wines from 2015, a red and a white. The pretty Grenache Yakima Valley Wonderland 2015 (91, $32) is supple and expressive, offering floral, smoky cherry and raspberry flavors, and the Riesling Columbia Valley Birdie 2015 (91, $18) is fresh and vibrant, with minerally flavors and acidity playing against pear and spice aromatics.

According to Foster, balancing the tannins was a key issue for winemakers in 2015. “Tannins are really a winemaking decision,” he explains. “For Washington, I think the balance of acid to tannin is the key.” Sparkman agrees, adding, “The season fueled these big wines. It is a bit of a brawny vintage.”

Though Washington continues to produce outstanding wines, tannin management remains a concern. In the past few months I’ve tasted too many wines that seemed to possess beautiful fruit that was excessively masked by nail-hard tannins. For that reason, those wines often scored in the high 80s rather than 90 or above. Will these wines evolve and open after a few years? Producers like Leonetti, Quilceda Creek and Woodward Canyon have certainly proven that Washington Cabernets can age. For others, time will tell.

Senior editor Tim Fish is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of  Washington.