Because of the climate, warm, sunny and dry, and the soil, relatively neutral and free draining, which allows producers to easily regulate the stress on the vine through the control of water, and virtually all the vines in the start benefit from irrigation, Washington has proven to be surprisingly well suited for a wide variety of grapes. While most regions seem to become associated with only a variety or two, if proficient at many more, Washington is still figuring things out on that front; and while a few grapes have emerged as real winners, there are so many fine wines produced throughout the state that it’s hard to link one with any specific region.
The vineyards in Washington are split roughly 50/50 between white and red varieties with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominating the plantings with ten and eight thousand acres under vine respectively. On the white side of the equation Chardonnay and Riesling lead the way with 7,600 and 6,300 acres respectively. Things get more interesting as you work your way down the list of widely planted varieties with Syrah emerging as a signature variety for the state, though ask anyone and they will tell you Merlot has found a special place here. I was also excited by some of the Grenache, Mourvedre, Malbec and Counoise that I tasted.
The plantings that are at their peak today were planted with the market of the 1990s in mind. While the market has not changed that much, Cabernet and Chardonnay are still the most important white and red grapes respectively, a plethora of other varieties have gained more respect in the intervening years. As the marketplace changes, and begins to accept higher pricing for the better examples of varieties such as Grenache, Malbec, Riesling, and of course Syrah, I fully expect to see greater diversity in Washington’s vineyards. In fact it is entirely likely that these vineyards will end up as the most varied in the country, simply because they are not fit for Pinot Noir.
That may sound odd but Pinot Noir has established itself as not only one of America's favorite wines, but one of its favorite expensive wines. There is no economic advantage in grafting Pinot over to Grenache, even if the Grenache that is produced is of better quality. It simply won’t be able to match the price of the Pinot, at least in today’s marketplace.
And they’re only getting started
While washington can trace back the origins of their wine industry to the early 19th century, the modern wine industry really only arrived in the 1960s. Talk of Champoux vineyard Cabernet planted in 1972 elicits a twinkle in the eyes of the producers fortunate enough to get that old-vine fruit, the oldest Cabernet in the state. That really serves as a touchstone for the industry. A road sign marking the start of the industry's success and rapid growth that has brought them to where they are today.
With explosive growth fueled by the varied and high quality wines produced in the region, not to mention the influx of money and well traveled palates brought to the state by the tech revolution, Washington’s wine industry is a model success story but as a wine region it is still in its adolescence. There is so much more for the region to learn about its vineyards, and the potential of their wines that it is a thrilling time to be a bystander watching it all happen. You can see the enthusiasm, and the collaborative spirit that infects the industry, as well as the willingness to try new things, and fail at them, that excites me as a consumer. Great things are happening in Washington wine, and while we on the east coast and abroad don’t always have access to the most interesting wines, they are worth the effort it takes to learn about them. Here’s to a month of discovering Washington State Wines!