WASHINGTON State, a bold wine region filled with personality, has long been upstaged by its neighbor California partly due to its being less market-oriented.
The latitude of the region in the northwestern US is similar to the great French wine regions Bordeaux and Burgundy. It is the second-biggest wine region in the US, with more than 43,000 acres and 750-plus wineries, according to the latest report from the Washington State Wine Commission.
Merlot and Riesling are two of the region’s highlights.
The area is characterized by distinctive geology, which adds to the wine diversity.
The volcanic Cascade Range divides the eastern part, with a warm and dry desert climate, and the west, which is cooler, wetter and more marine-influenced. That makes the wines range from vary greatly.
On the east side is a growing season with average temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah both flourishing. To the west is an area closer to the cool Puget Sound, producing Siegerrebe (a white wine grape with floral aroma and low acidity) and Madeline Angevine (used to produce light floral white wine).
The Columbia Valley in eastern Washington is the most famous and largest wine region locally, due to its quality and quantity. Its wine is known for expressing Washington terroir directly and honestly. Acidity is the highlight, both in its reds and whites.
Grapes there enjoy 300 days of sunshine a year — two hours more sunshine each day than California during the peak of its growing season, providing conditions for optimal ripening.
The desert-like environment causes temperatures to shift dramatically from day to night, with 10 degrees Celsius swings helping the grapes preserve their acidity. Premium Merlot produced in the Columbia Valley is unique, combining the ripe and lush character of the New World with the acidity and structure of the Old World.
Washington’s soil also matters. It was washed down from Missoula Floods sweeping across the state from west to east at the end of the last ice age, depositing gravels, loess and slack water sediment. This soil type provides good drainage and pushes the vine to concentrate all its energy into its fruit. That makes the red wines more concentrated while the white wines, especially the riesling, get a more mineral touch.
Unlike many wine producers in California that are commercially operated and market-oriented, wineries in Washington state are mostly family owned so that people wearing jeans and driving a forklift truck are often the owner, whom visitors and tasters can directly talk with.
Local winemakers, with less commercial pressure, express more personality in their wines. They dare to experiment with international grape varieties.
Signature grapes of each country are planted here, from Italian Nebbiolo to German Riesling, from Argentine Malbec to Spanish Tempranillo. Such variety can make the wine vary considerably in quality. Lack of focus also leads to the region having some difficulty marketing itself to the world wine market.
Besides dividing Washington state into two different landscapes, the Casade Range, lined with snow-capped mountains in the west and dramatic bluffs and canyons in the east, has pushed development of a unique situation where wineries are often separated from vineyards.
Most of the wineries are near Seattle, on the urbanized west coast, yet vineyards are far away, mostly in the sparsely populated east. Winery tours are part of the Seattle lifestyle.
Here are four highlighted wineries in Washington.
Chateau St Michelle
It’s the biggest and oldest winery in Seattle, established in 1954, with its own vineyards in dry and sunny Columbia Valley. Many wine lovers’ first answer to Washington wine is St Michelle’s Riesling.
The winery produces eight different Rieslings, varied in style but all sharing a bright, fresh and clean style.
Its Eroica Riesling, in cooperation with leading German winemaker Ernst Loosen, is the signature, offering sweet lime and peach aromas with subtle mineral touch.
“Erorica (2012) combines the trademark Washington acidity with German Botrytis (known as noble rot) influence. The wine offers lush orange marmalade flavors with a crisp finish,” says winemaker Bob Bertheau.
Besides Riesling, St Michelle’s Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot are also highlights.
Chardonnay fermented in French oak features concentrated fruitiness, creamy taste and toasty aroma.
The winery itself is in a French-style chateau originally built in 1912 by a lumber baron.
It is a hot Seatle travel destination. People come to tour the winery, taste wines and enjoy food at the private dining room.
Opening hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Address: 14111 NE 145th Street, Woodinville, WA 98072
The winery, owned by brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt, is set on a picturesque slope in Prosser, a town near the Yakima River in eastern Washington. It’s different from many other wineries in Washington in that the winery is actually near the vineyards.
The owners, who have sold grapes to other wineries since 1997, decided to make their own wine seven years ago. Currently they have 12 vineyard sites covering 23 acres.
Red wines are made from grapes in Wahluke Slope, known for its hot and dry climate, which gives the wine fruitiness and ripeness. Their signature red is Sentinel 2012, a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Petite Verdot, featuring aromas of black fruit and roasted coffee, with a silky yet strong body.
White wines are generally made from grapes in the Ancient Lake Area, a cooler area in the northern Columbia Valley, with a locally distinctive soil composition dominated by clay and caliche. The owner says this is ideal for planting Riesling, giving the wine a mineral character. Their Milbrandt Traditions Riesling 2012 is recommended.
The winery can help arrange an outdoor wine tasting in its warm and sunny vineyard.
Opening hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Address: Prosser’s Vintner’s Village, 508 Cabernet Court, Prosser, WA 99350
The family-run winery, together with its vineyard in Red Mountain, provides something of an alternative style in Washington.
Christophe Hedges and his sister Sarah Goedhart practice in a French style, respecting nature and avoiding much manipulation in the winemaking process.
They live a French lifestyle and their English is always mixed with some French terms. “Our goal is to treat our wines with reverence and let the Red Mountain terroir speak for itself,” says Christophe.
Their French mother, Anne-Marie Liegeois, was born in Champagne and married American Tom Hedges. The couple established the brand.
Sarah is involved in winemaking. She crafts wine in a strong and concentrated style, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Christophe is involved in sales and marketing.
In their tasting center, each visitor is given a piece of paper that reads, “I don’t hang out with people who drink 100-point wine.”
Their signature wine is the HFE Red Mountain, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, featuring a dense red color, firm tannins and moderate acidity.