Wines from Washington
Superb fruit from the other winemaking state
Writing as James MacNaughton/Albany Times Union
Here’s something I didn’t know until I recently looked it up: Washington State is the second biggest wine making state in the country, and it is growing fast. According to my wine atlas, “a new Washington winery is bonded every 15 days.” Part of what makes the wine making business in Washington odd, is that it is concentrated in Eastern Washington, on the dry, almost desert-like plateau on the other side of the Cascade mountains in the Columbia River Valley. If you think of rainy Seattle, you have to think again. The rain doesn’t make it over the mountains much and this is dry country, the vineyards almost entirely dependent on irrigation. However, it has some growing advantages. It is roughly at the same latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux, and “the continental climate here has proved excellent for ripening fine wine grapes,” my atlas continues helpfully. “Rainless summers and autumns minimize disease problems while the hot days and cool nights of the desert induce good color and singularly well-defined flavors in some (not all) varieties.”
Here’s the other thing I like about what I’ve learned about the way wine is made in Washington. It’s wide open and unfussy. Most Washington wine is designated as “Washington State” or maybe “Columbia Valley” but there aren’t a lot of micro-regions to get worried about, and as I understand it, the tradition is for winemakers to buy grapes from all over the region and blend as they see fit so that the location of the winery doesn’t tell you much about the wine anyway.
And yes, I haven’t forgotten about the wine. All this started because the guy in my wine store looked at my confused, directionless face and said. “Everybody is raving about 14 Hands.” Well, what could I do? I had to buy a bottle if only to be polite despite my misgivings about Cabernet Sauvignon from the West Coast. Well, the 2006 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon ($14) (so-called, because they used to ranch horses on the vineyard and they stood about that high) was delicious, with vanilla and cream overlaid on mulberry and cherry fruit, with mushroomy and tobacco qualities, and a lovely glossy succulence in the glass. Fruit that you could almost bite into it was that clear. Really a good wine, but to be fair, to call it a Cabernet Sauvignon turns out to be one of those Washington State leg-pullers, since further research disclosed that they had wisely added 2o percent Syrah, and 2 percent of Merlot and Cabernet Franc along the way. The Syrah gave the wine the chewy, ripe, sunny quality that made it special. Anyway, good wine at the price.
So I poked around for some other wines from Washington and was very impressed. Definitely, the fruit is well defined, sweet and clear. One of the best wines I’ve recently enjoyed at $10 was the 2006 Red Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon (they also added Merlot). Cherry, black plums, tart orangey flavors, a bit of chocolate and tobacco. Again, just lovely clear ripe fruit, but not over-indulgently so.
The best was the 2003 Hogue Cabernet Sauvignon ($25). I thought this wine was gorgeous and intense and it had good acidity while still being a fruit-forward wine; with blueberry and cherry Coke notes, caramel, and a generous mouthfeel, a hint of pepper and herbs and woodsmoke. Again, the winemakers felt free to add a bit of Merlot. These are super wines and for me, a discovery.