New Releases from Washington State
Washington State has enjoyed a succession of warm vintages in recent years, and it's quite likely that 2005 will turn out to be the best of them. In recent months I tasted some excellent white wines from this near-ideal growing season without extreme heat, but the reds will be for next year's coverage. Still, there was no mistaking the excitement of producers, many of whom told me that 2005 was a potential five-star vintage for the state, as a leisurely, drawn-out harvest yielded grapes with ideal balance and unusual complexity. Several told me that they have never made better red wines in their careers.
Many of the new releases I tried this summer and early fall were reds from 2004, a vintage that produced big wines with generally healthier pHs and a slightly cooler character than the lush, high-alcohol 2003s, which were mostly made from ripe grapes that were harvested quickly during a hot spell in September. In 2004, which was also plenty warm, many growers could safely allow their fruit to hang on the vines into October. It must be noted that 2004 began with a damaging freeze in early January, which was generally at its most destructive in Walla Walla Valley. Some vineyards did not produce grapes, while others had difficulty ripening their fruit properly. So there's a lot of "Columbia Valley" fruit in numerous 2004 Walla Walla bottlings, as growers were forced to go outside their home base to purchase grapes.
While a majority of producers rate 2003 slightly behind 2002 and 2004, this opinion is by no means unanimous. Veteran winemaker Mike Januick, for example, noted that 2003 "elevated itself" in barrel, and told me he considers the vintage to be better than '02. Of course, he added, all vintages since 2000 have been above average. Lance Baer prefers '03 to '04, especially for cabernet sauvignon. "For me, 2004 got ripe but it's not intense enough." Bob Betz is also a fan of the 2003s for their ripe middle palates and sheer sweetness, and pointed out that they have put on fat with time in bottle. But the 2004s are more primary and more powerfully structured, he says.
Among recent trends in Washington are the increasing popularity of viognier, Washington's fastest growing white variety, and.the continuing explosion of new syrah bottlings. There were less than 100 acres of syrah vines in Washington as recently as 1988; today there are about 2,500! On the Bordeaux side of the Washington State gene pool, many growers are now planting petit verdot, a grape that is working its way into an ever-higher percentage of red blends from Washington. Malbec is also felt to have a future in Washington's high-desert climate, though it will be at least a few more years before the likely success of this grape can be properly assessed. More important, though, cabernet franc continues to grow in popularity, and my tastings this year confirm that this variety is introducing greater aromatic complexity into many of the state's best Bordeaux blends. As cabernet franc grows in popularity, merlot continues to wane. There are relatively few varietal merlot bottlings left, and many of the best blends feature less merlot today than ever before.
On the following pages are recommended new releases from the overwhelming majority of Washington's top producers. Additional wines from these producers that rated 83 or 84 points are listed with an asterisk. As in past years, I tasted a Missoula flood of lesser bottlings that do not merit your interest; these wines are not included in my coverage.