On average a new winery opens each week in Washington, the state in America’s north-west. For publication in week starting 12 December 2016.
Grapes were first planted in Washington state in 1825. Today the wine business is worth more than USD 4.8 billion a year, and Washington wines are available in every state in the country and in more than 100 countries around the world. Washington is America’s second largest wine producer after California, with about 21,400 hectares of vines.
Rapid expansion means that two in five of these vines were planted in the past decade, and on average four new wineries open each month.
Establishment of the Washington State Wine Commission, a unified marketing and trade association, in 1987 boosted the region’s reputation. The Washington Wine Institute and its educational partners created two-year and four-year degree programs to support the industry in 2003. In 2011 the industry funded a world-class Wine Science Centre at Washington State University, which opened in June 2015.
The state has about 900 wineries and about 350 grape growers. The best-known American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the Columbia Valley. An AVA is a designated region in the United States for growing wine grapes with distinct geographic features. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the United States Department of the Treasury defines the boundaries.
Two major mountain ranges, the Olympics and the Cascades, protect the Columbia Valley from bad weather from the Atlantic coast and this geographic feature creates the perfect climate for wine in the warm and dry eastern part of the state.
Greg Harrington, a Master Sommelier and founder of Gramercy Cellars, described the industry as a blend of new world winemaking and viticulture techniques combined with old world structures and acidity. He noted that in recent years Washington had the highest proportion of wines receiving 90 or more points out of 100 in Wine Spectator ratings, compared with the wines of France, Italy, California and Oregon.
“Columbia Valley is one of the warmer regions during the peak growing season, allowing sugar development while retaining natural acidity due to the large diurnal shift. As we move closer to harvest, Columbia Valley cools rapidly, allowing grapes to gain phenolic maturity without gaining excess sugar. Growers can leave fruit on the vine until the optimal picking time without fear of over-ripeness. Washington has several advantages as a place to grow grapes. The soil types are unattractive to pests, and the region has never suffered from the phylloxera louse.”
The louse is an almost microscopic insect related to the aphid that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. The resulting damage gradually cuts off the flow of nutrients and water to the vine. Currently there is no known cure for phylloxera. The only successful way to control it has been the grafting of phylloxera resistant American rootstock to more susceptible European vinifera vines.
The freezing temperatures of winter kill many pests. Arid temperatures in summer and low humidity help control the spread of fungal diseases, which reduces the need to spray.
Washington and Oregon share a border, yet their wine styles are very different. Oregon, which is south of Washington, produces what we associate with cool climate Burgundian-style wines such as pinot noir and chardonnay. Washington is further north than Oregon and logically should be cooler. But meso-climates in Washington are warmer and more appropriate for Rhone-style wines or Bordeaux blends.
Doug Marshall, the international marketing manager for Washington State Wine, said Washington wine was sold in more than 100 countries. Much of it goes to Eastern Canada, northern Europe (Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the UK) and Southeast Asia (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and China).
His organisation followed a strategy of “influencing the influencers” in terms of marketing. “While we never forget that at the end of the day it is the consumer who is buying the bottle of wine, we also understand that the stewards of industry are really the ones who inform wine lovers about quality. For that reason we really focus on building strong relationships with members of the trade and media around the world, so we host tastings [and] seminars and bring wine professionals to experience Washington wine first hand. Like all wine regions, to truly understand what is happening it must be experienced in person.”
The Washington State Wine Commission hosted a tasting in London earlier this month to introduce members of the Circle of Wine Writers to the state’s wines. Wines were served blind along with similar styles from France, Australia and New Zealand, and the Washington examples performed well.
The most attractive Rhone style wines, based on Syrah, came from the Walla Walla and Columbia Valley AVAs. The 2012 Horsepower Vineyards The Tribe and the 2014 Gramercy Cellars The Deuce from Walla Walla and the 2013 Long Shadows Sequel from the Columbia Valley had ripe fruit at the black cherry end of the spectrum with soft tannins and zingy acidity.
Master Sommelier Harrington said a feature of this style of wines was the ease of drinking even when young, with pronounced aromas and flavours of smoked meat, roasted green vegetables and black olives. The Horsepower Vineyards The Tribe was especially yummy with its slightly feral nose of farmyard perfumes.
Bordeaux-blend style wines from a range of AVAs proved to be delicious. Notable AVAs apart from Walla Walla and Columbia Valley included Red Mountain and the wonderfully-named Horse Heaven Hills. The 2012 blend of two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and one third Cabernet Franc made by Andrew Will known as the Sorella from Horse Heaven Hills AVA was a real treat, with its unusual Marmite nose and rich sweet red fruit flavours. The tannins suggest longevity and the need to drink this with an appropriate meat dish.
The tasting showed that Washington state produces quality wines from a range of regions.