Washington state is the second largest wine region in the United States, but in British terms it has largely stayed under the radar. We summarize five reasons why we think Washington State should be firmly on your radar.
- Superb value for money
One of the most obvious reasons to know Washington State is that its wines are excellent value for money.
Speaking at a recent Washington State masterclass in London, wine writer Jamie Goode noted that this was something Washington does well that California struggles with – “making wines from good quality and inexpensive “.
“California produces a lot of inexpensive wines, but they don’t come from privileged vineyards, but from the Central Valley, while Washington State produces a lot of wines in the $ 8 to $ 15 range, coming from good vineyards and wines. have something about them, ”he says.
“That’s one of the things about Washington State it can really deliver at that price.
Tim Jackson of Amathus Drinks, who imports wines from the Powers winery, notes that it’s very difficult to get comparable quality at a similar price from California. “We see good value for money in Washington state, which means you can bring in an American cabernet at a really good price. “
One of the reasons for this is that the cost of land is not as high as in California or Sonoma.
As Jackson points out, there is a correlation between the price of land and the price of wine, but it’s a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum – if you can sell wine for $ 100, the Your land’s price is going up, but now in some parts of California you MUST make $ 100 wines!
In Washington state, there hasn’t been this escalation in land prices, although it could happen in due course, although Jackson says it could be to a lesser extent, and Oregon might be the first to see it, due to its reputation as a pinot noir, when Washington state is still “fumbling around,” he says.
- Emerging Identity
Washington State is still a fairly young wine region, with the first commercial vineyards planted in 1960, followed by the establishment of Columbia Vineyard in 192 and the state’s largest producer, Ste Michelle Wine Estates, in 1967. The first AVA was established in 1983, and now number 16, and the past 20 years have seen tremendous growth – from just 100 wineries in 2001 to over 1,000 in 2019.
Mike Coveney, Managing Director of Hilltop wine, notes that this process is “a journey”, noting that there are still AVAs in development, as well as work in progress on site selection to determine the best location. to grow particular varieties.
However, he and Tim Jackson of Amanthus Wines agree that the state is now starting to project its own identity. “We see more consistency of style, more spice that reminds me of the volcanic origin,” says Jackson. “We don’t fall into the trap of picking too early, so there is a good balance of fruit”
Stylistically, Washington State wines fall between the Old and New Worlds, Goode argues.
“It’s a huge generalization, but they can have structure, acidity and focus, but also ripe fruit,” he explains.
There are roughly 76 different varietals grown in Washington State – and there are quite a few of them, offering something different to many other areas.
In terms of grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape (53,740 t), followed by Merlot (30,350 t), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay, as well as pockets of everything from Sangiovese with Carignan, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, with Gewürztraminer and Sémillon.
Coveney notes that while Washington State is lucky, it grows many varieties very well and is not a “mere hit” which can be a double-edged sword.
However Goode maintains that despite the excellent Merlots and Chardonnay produced in the region, it is Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that are the most interesting grape varieties in the state along with Riesling. “This is something Washington State has really claimed and done very well,” he says, pointing to its elegance, purity and good balance of a benchmark Riesling from the State of. Washington.
Syrah, he says, is an emerging story, which can be characteristic with strong aromas of bacon and coffee beans, from the high altitudes of Walla Walla, to more European-style wines that are delicate, fresh and friendly, blended to other varieties such as carignan. .
“Syrah has a great future in the state as very different styles of wine,” he notes.
“It’s a very adaptable grape, which does well in cool climates and hot climates, but finding a place where it has its own mark, in terms of obtaining its own character, is not that common. And Washington State is a place where Syrah can do that very well.
And while Napa can dominate the American Cabernet scene, Washington state can get its money’s worth, Goode says.
“A premium Napa cabernet sauvignon can start at $ 100 and be very high, so being able to put in a polished $ 60 cabernet is great,” he explains. “It might sound expensive in the UK context, but in the US context it is not expensive.”
However, Washington State can also do the bounty at a price of $ 10-20. “He notes,” and producing things that overcharge for their prices, which is a great strength. “
- Climate and ideal location for viticulture
Sitting above Oregon and near rainy Seattle, the tendency is to think of Washington state as a cold, northern climate. However, in reality, Washington State is in the middle of the 46 parallel, that is, at the same latitude as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italian regions like Chianti.
As Goode points out, this is a “great place” for wine and the latitude means the state enjoys longer days during the crucial summer months and more sun. For example, Horse Heaven Hills AVA in Washington is roughly comparable to Barossa Valley in terms of average growing degree days, while Red Mountain AVA has more than Oakville, Calif.
“Compared to Napa, you get 55 more hours of daylight,” Goode points out.
And Washington state only gets two rain shadows, caused by the Olympic and Cascade mountains, which means it’s an extremely dry area. Only 6 to 8 inches of rain fall per year, compared to 40 in Seattle, lowering the risk of pests and disease and increasing the hours of sunshine.
It also results in “extreme” fluctuations between day and night (the diurnal range) which is very useful, as it ensures that the grapes cool and rest overnight, increasing their acidity and freshness.
With a large part of the climatic conditions favoring the production of grapes, what about the terroir?
While there is obviously some variety across the different ones, particularly those along the Columbia River, the underlying structure throughout the region is volcanic basalt. However, thousands of years of flooding and winds have deposited alluvial deposits from neighboring Idaho above the base largely resulting in draining, nutrient-poor soil which is exactly what is needed for high quality viticulture.
It is the varying depth of the loess, the presence of alluvial pebbles in some regions, calciferous limestone deposits in others, and the proximity of volcanic ash and the basalt base layer that help give the wines a different character. of Washington State AVAs.
- Growing availability
Currently, the vast majority of Washington State wines are sold and consumed in the United States, with exports accounting for a small percentage of sales. Obviously, some of the bigger players, such as Chateau Ste Michelle, are sold in the UK, but around 90% of the state’s wineries are small family businesses. They are more and more eager to enter the UK market and offer something a little different.
But is the UK consumer ready?
Coveney argues that consumers are familiar with California but are not yet familiar with Washington state, its AVAs and what it has to offer.
“The challenge is to find the right product at the right style and price and communicate it to the consumer, ”he says.
Communication will also be essential to highlight the state’s unique proposition “California and Washington state are very different regions, climatically and geographically,” he said.