Consumers tightened their purse strings and bought less expensive wines, challenging the state’s numerous boutique wineries. Today, propelled by the landmark 2012 vintage and the three strong years that followed, Washington’s time may have finally arrived.
How do you ripen Cabernet?’ ” says Chris Peterson, winemaker for Ravenna in Joinville. Washington’s association with rain-soaked Seattle and confusion with the nation’s capital have long been hindrances to growing the state’s wine brand.
While Seattle does see more than its fair share of gray, gloomy days, almost all of Washington’s wine grapes are grown hundreds of miles to the east. There, thanks to a rain shadow caused by the craggy Cascade Range, lies a desert region with 300 days of sunshine, averaging just 5–8 inches of rainfall each year.
However, water from various rivers and aquifers, along with consistently warm summers, give the state’s grape growers a high degree of control during the growing season. “With irrigation, we have the capacity to control canopy growth, shoot length, berry size and cluster weight,” says Marty Club, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Cole No 41 in Low den.
“In our almost 40-year history at Bennett Cellar, we’ve never had a harvest compromised by weather. Wines were noticeably higher in acid and less accessible immediately than normal, but also offered focused fruit flavors and tremendous collaring potential.
Heat accumulation during the growing season matched 20-year averages, resulting in an abundance of top-quality wines. “We had such excellent conditions for ripening in terms of fruitfulness, acidity and structural balance.
“They’re voluptuous and fruit driven, with big, thick middles, but with good acid. The aromas and flavors are so generous and appealing that it’s easy to think the wines might just shine in their youth and then quickly fade.
Though 2014 and 2015 can be described as hot and hotter, the state seems to have come through just fine, especially with more acreage devoted to heat-loving Cabernet Sauvignon. “When it’s warm, like in ’14 and ’15, if it cools down during final maturation like it did, you end up with smaller berries, thicker skins and superb quality,” Club says.
Six years after Washington’s wine industry seemed poised to bust out, it yet again looks ready to make a splash. Grammy Cellars 2012 Lagniappe Sarah (Columbia Valley); $55, 95 points.
Blended from Red Willow, Marcus and Oldfield vineyards, this 100% Sarah offers aromas of green olives, brown stems, dried herbs and raspberries. The palate has densely rich yet exceptionally well-balanced fruit and savory flavors that are creamy in feel.
Quilted Creek 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $140, 95 points. All Cabernet from Campus, Clips, Calendar and Walmsley vineyards, this wine offers aromas of blackberry, incense, blueberry, pencil lead and barrel spices.
On the palate, it’s tightly wound with black fruit flavors and a firm backbone of tannins. It has a mountain-fruit profile of firm, chewy tannins, tart acids and dense flavors.
Wood spice and vanilla are out in front of the aromas followed by mocha, raspberry and dark fruit. The palate brings lush, concentrated flavors and a finish with lots of hang time.
With grapes coming from Wanna, Clips and Cain du Coeval vineyards, among others, this wine offers brooding aromas of dark raspberries and bittersweet chocolate. The oak (half new French) provides a perfect complement, with flavors of coffee and spice mixing with dark fruit.
This blend of Durum and Meek vineyard fruit broods with aromas of dark raspberries and licorice. Ripe fruit flavors accompany exquisitely balanced tannins and acidity.
Despite its lighter color, this wine explodes from the glass with a complex, near-endless list of aromas that include sea breeze, crushed flowers, peat, green olive, fire pit, smoked meat, pepper, orange peel and sea salt. Its ethereal, elegant style belies the outrageously rich, exquisitely flavorful savory notes that won’t quit, offering a completely captivating walk on the variety’s wild side.
Made with 75% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc, this wine commands attention, with aromas of dried and fresh herbs, black fruit, toast and flowers. The dark fruit flavors are rich, layered and tightly coiled, captivating attention with spot-on balance.
The bouquet offers intriguing aromas of berry, black olive, vanilla and other barrel spices. The chocolate and cherry flavors are elegant, soft and creamy in feel, showing a pleasing sense of balance.
This also contributed to greater soil moisture, increased canopy growth, and slightly delayed bud break and bloom. Summer temperatures were cooler and considerably more even than in recent years, with a notable lack of heat spikes.
Although growers worked feverishly to bring it in, some fruit was left unpicked due to concerns about frost damage. July and August temperatures were quite warm, and then it cooled considerably in September, creating ideal conditions for ripening.
Warm days during harvest continued sugar accumulation while cooler nights preserved acidity. Harvest began right on schedule but in the second half of September, temperatures cooled considerably, which delayed ripening.
This allowed for luxurious amounts of hang time without the threat of increased sugar accumulation, stretching harvest into the first week of November. If 2013 and ’14 could be described as ‘hot’ and ‘hotter,’ then 2015 would no doubt be described as ‘hottest.’ 2015 was Washington’s warmest vintage to date, with above average temperatures across the Columbia Valley throughout the growing season.
While the ever-warm Red Mountain accumulated over 3,900 Growing Degree Days, even cooler regions like the Yakima Valley saw over 3,150. The warm temperatures led to advancement of all markers of the growing season, with bud break, bloom, and harvest occurring two to three weeks ahead of historical averages.
Warm, sunny and consistent weather during the growing season with no rain lead to fruit ripening on schedule and helping winemakers avoid a compressed harvest as some had seen in 2010 and 2011. This dramatic diurnal shift allowed the grapes to retain their natural acidity, which will balance out the plush, ripe flavors that will result from the 2012 vintage.
Acidity was moderate in both red and white varieties, and pH was generally low, which will allow wines from 2011 to age for a long time to come. Despite some weather challenges, the fruit from 2011 fully ripened and many vintners celebrated the lower alcohol levels and crafted elegant, complex wines from the vintage.
2010 Bud break arrived on schedule in early April, but a cool, wet spring led to delayed flowering and reduced fruit set across many varieties. 2009 Cool spring temperatures and high wind conditions led to late bud break and a small quantity of poor fruit set.
Very hot, dry summer (the hottest July on record for many sites) accelerated ripening of sugars and a need to pick most grapes by early October, earlier than generally practiced in the past 15 years. Harvest was 10-14 days later than normal, but summer and early fall were dry, allowing for sugar and phenolic ripening with no loss of acid.
Flavor development, acid balance, phenolic ripeness all occurred without the threat of high sugars. October was dry and sunny with moderate temperatures, allowing longer hang time when needed.
Very good to excellent vintage for both reds and whites, with some tannin structure/higher acid combinations pointing to strong ability to age for structure varieties. 2005 A mild winter and warm spring led to relatively early and heavy fruit set, and a hot summer rapidly accelerated ripening.
September and October cooled significantly, allowing for extended hang time and flavor development. Despite winter damage to vines in certain areas across the state, the overall size of 2004 crop estimates were offset by an increase in bearing vineyard acres coming into production.
The cool fall extended hang time with final berries picked in early November. Hot weather hit late in the growing season, nudging the fruit to reach flavor and structural ripeness.
Cool weather moved in on September 10th, allowing extra hang time and flavor development, which extended harvest through late October. The growing season began cool, then warm temperatures (mid to high 90s) put the crop ahead of schedule in some areas.
Temperatures moved forward harvest start dates by about 10 days earlier than average (September 1, 2001, the first grapes were picked near Benton City, on Red Mountain). Additionally, red grape varieties had softer tannins and bigger, more dominant flavors making them more approachable than in years past.
Hang time was ideal, allowing grape flavor maturity to catch up with the sugar accumulation. The result is an unprecedented quantity of dark, concentrated red wines and fresh, balanced whites.
1999 65,000 Tons Harvested Extended hang time during a very warm and dry September allowed for a crop with perfectly balanced levels of natural acid and rich, ripe flavors. 1998 71,000 Tons Harvested Early predictions peg this as the year when Washington State vineyards hit the top of the charts for both size and quality.
Full, even ripening yielded balanced sugars and acids, while increased acreage augmented the total harvest. Red varieties were affected most, but a mild spring and a hot summer nurtured good quality grapes.
Winemakers were enthusiastic about the quality of both red and white wines because of the concentrated flavors and intense varietal character of the fruit. 1993 62,000 Tons Harvested A warm finish to an unusually cool summer pushed the fruit to full ripeness.
Mild winters the previous years and the maturing of several new vineyards combined to yield a record crop. Excellent color and low to moderate tannins were courtesy of a gentle winter, mild spring and very warm summer.
The result was dramatically reduced vineyard yields, and one of the state's best years for white wines with solid acid levels and full flavors. A winter freeze thinned vines a bit, reducing the size and number of grape clusters.
1988 46,000 Tons Harvested Consistently warm days followed a gentle, dry winter brought crop levels up and produced well-balanced sugars and acids. 1987 46,000 Tons Harvested A warmer than average growing season produced outstanding wines, particularly noticeable in the top-quality reds.
Wines were packed with bright fruit and supple tannins and continue to deliver on the promise of long-term aging potential.