With the lush Cascade Mountain Range lining the coast of Washington State, the almost daily rain and the chilly Humboldt current flowing from the northwest it is difficult to picture it as one of the most vibrant wine-producing states in America. And yet, Washington is home to a hotbed of regions producing some of the most sought- after and highly acclaimed wines in the country. Washington’s production is diverse from Riesling to Merlot and Chardonnay to Tempranillo. But for me their Cabernet and Syrah are what truly deserve to be called world class.
Despite the greenery of the coast, almost all the wine produced in Washington is grown east of the Cascade Mountains and along the Columbia River Valley. The mountains act as a rain shadow and prevent the inclement weather and rain from reaching eastern Washington. Eastern Washington is a continental plateau in comparison where vines, with the help of proper irrigation, can thrive. The Columbia River Valley a.k.a. Columbia Valley and it’s eight sub-regions including Walla Walla, Yakima, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, Rattle Snake Hills, Wahluke Slope, The Rocks and Ancient Lakes is the “heart” of wine production for the state. This is not only the largest AVA in Washington but also its most important. With the sub-regions being delimited, it is allowing producers to show the individuality of their areas and bringing even more diversity and elevating the quality of the Columbia Valley region as a whole.
With Cabernet being “King” in the U.S., Washington State has its share of royalty. Two of the most luxurious and sought-after Cabernets are made here. Leonetti Cellars has long been a cult favorite. With their small production Cabernet only the most discerning and knowledgeable of wine cognoscenti even knew about these wines. In 1998 I attended a blind tasting of 28 different Cabernets from the 1994 vintage with a dozen of Hawai‘i’s top collectors and sommeliers. Every Cult Cabernet from California was included, yes, every single one you can think of, even the one with wings. When the votes were given for the top three wines, the top wine was the 1994 Leonetti Cabernet.
I recently tasted the 2016 Leonetti Cabernet, which was opulent but with a reticent power that bodes well for age ability. Deep and rich with tannin it will age well for two decades at least. On par with Leonetti is Quilceda Creek, which was also at the tasting and finished in a more than respectable fifth place. Their Cabernet is sleek and intense. Every bit as impressive as any in the New World. The 2012 is a powerhouse that seems as if it was just released. Black currants, sweet plum, vanilla and chocolate are effusive in this wine. If you can find it, grab some! A newer name to the top flight of Cabernet production is Force Majeure. Known for their Collaboration series where each wine is made with the influence of a different wine- maker they have shifted their focus to estate-based wines and winemaker Todd Alexander is at the helm. The 2015 Estate Cabernet is a rocking good Cabernet with depths of flavor to dive into: anise, plums, currants and even mocha. It is full-bodied but still holds itself well while being decadent! Col Solare and Delille Cellars also deserve mention when talking about Washington’s great Cabernets.
Syrah (as unpopular as it is in the U.S.) has found some of its highest expressions in the Columbia Valley. Master Sommelier Greg Harrington has quickly made Gramercy Cellars a darling in the wine community. Their Syrah’s from the Walla Walla Valley are simply terrific. His Les Collines Syrah is perhaps my favorite with all the black fruit, spices and sultry decadence that Syrah can offer. It also has some earthiness. Btw this vineyard is the reason why Greg moved from Manhattan to Washington after one taste from this vineyard. Reynvaan is another family producer in Walla Walla that does magic with Syrah. Their In The Rocks Vineyard which is basically a dried up river bed produces some of the most unique and special Syrah in the new world. Wild red and black fruit abound in this wine complimented by a stoniness and spiciness that really lifts the aromatics and flavors to another level. Cayuse Vineyards rounds out my top three picks. Their Cailloux Vineyard Syrah is always a spicy, meaty, smoky bowl of juiciness: both full-bodied but taught in structure. It is age-worthy but irresistible.
Washington State does many things well: beautiful Riesling and Merlot included but Cabernet and Syrah take the cake. These are more than just great—they are individual and unique. That is what makes Washington a special place, indeed.
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