Tomorrow I’ll begin a two part look at wines that I recently tasted while traveling throughout the state of Washington, but I thought it would be a good idea to preface those notes today with a brief look at some of the wheres and whys of Washington State’s wines.

Washington State remains a bit of mystery to most people, pumping out attractive wines but without the cache or the backstory that many other regions have managed to take advantage of. Coming as they do from vineyards located almost exclusively in the eastern half of the state, relatively far from the population centers of Seattle and Spokane, it’s no surprise they few folks make the effort to get out there and visit but if you do there’s a lot to glean from a boots on the ground visit.
Climate

When most of us think of Washington state we think of the cool, damp clime that envelopes the coastal region that famously includes Seattle. What many don’t realize is that the coast is but a thin sliver separated from the rest of the states by the Cascade mountains. The reason that the coast is so damp is due to  the effect this mountain range has on the Humboldt current that carries moisture down from the northern Pacific. This air is forced up the slopes of the hills where it cools and forms the rains and mist that the region is famous for.

Conversely the air that manages to surmount the mountains ends up being dry, and much of inland Washington is in fact a high plains desert. To put things in perspective average rainfall throughout the Columbia Valley tends to be on the order of less than 10 inches per year, half of what Napa valley typically expects. The dry air also translates into plenty of cloudless days and at this high latitude that can mean almost 16 hours of sunlight a day. All that sunlight brings with it warmth, and temperatures above 90 are not unusual in the region, albeit for a smaller window than one might expect further to the south.

In truth the season here is bit compressed when compared with its southern neighbors. The vines wake up later in the growing season, but catch up as summer wears on due to the heat and sunlight. As the season’s change once again, autumn asserts its grip on Washington more forcefully and earlier than points south with the onset of cool nights that are responsible for the rather bright acids that Washington state’s wines are capable of. With no rain threat on the horizon, vintners are able to allow their fruit to hang until it’s just where they want it to be. The cool nights are complemented by sunny and fairly warm days so sugars accumulate slowly in these wines, balanced by the aforementioned acid.  


Geology

The Columbia Valley, home to most of Washington’s vineyards, was formed through the action of the Missoula floods. Some 13 to 15 thousand years ago a series of huge waves of water scoured  the region bare, exposing the basaltic and limestone outcroppings that form the bedrock of the region. In the years since this devastating series of floods, which had wave heights of some 400 ft and traveled at a peak of 80 miles an hour, wind blown silty soils have gradually accumulated throughout the region,.

In some spot these wind blown deposits reach tens of feet deep, but they remain essentially free of organic material offering little ability to hold water, though offering the vines an intriguing array of mineral micronutrients for their growth. In general there is a thin layer of topsoil throughout the region as well, but due to the relative youth of the soils, there simply has not been sufficient time for much organic material to be deposited across the region.

This of course is both an advantage, loose soils that allow roots to penetrate deeply into the depths of the soil and access a variety of micronutrients being the great positive. The lack of organic material and generally free draining nature of the soil in a region that is essential a desert being the 900 pound gorilla of a negative in the room. Of course with such little rainfall irrigation is a must in Washington, though a handful of vineyards on the slopes of the Blue Mountains are being dry farmed, though I am not aware of how sustainable those efforts are turning out to be.

Water of course is one of the great issues of our times and nowhere is it felt more acutely than amongst the farming communities of this arid region. In a significant way the future of Washington’s wine industry, and it’s ability to continue to grow hinges on the thorny issue of water rights. At the moment there remains a balance between supply and demand but it is precarious.  

Rootstock

Somewhat surprisingly  the fine, silty soil that is prevalent in the region prevents the root louse phylloxera from becoming an issue, allowing virtually all the vineyards to be planted on native rootstock. Throughout the world, with few exceptions, this little louse has devastated vineyards as it borrows from root to root sucking the life from vine after vine. In sandy soil though, the carapace of the louse, which in a quirk of nature has overlapping plates that opens towards the front the the animal,  traps fine particles of sandy causing the louse to dehydrate and die.

This is important for two reasons. The first is obvious. You can plant vines on their own roots and they don’t die. To many in the wine business there is something special about own rooted vines. The vines and the root remain in harmony, and the wines produced from these vines seem to be more harmonious, and perhaps with a bit less alcohol than vines on American rootstock. Another advantage that own rooted vines have is that if the portion of the vine above ground dies in its youth, due to drought or a hard freeze, the vine that the root produces will be another identical vine. With vines grafted onto American root stock the new growth would be the American variety and not the Vitis Vinifera that was grafted onto the vine.

Whether or not own rooted vines mean anything to the wine buying public at large is certainly open to debate, though in wine geek circles there is no argument that there is something different expressed in the wines produced from fruit grown on these wines. That balance that controls vigor seems to produce wine that have a bit more elegance and finesse, but there might even be something else going on. Something that might explain the ability of so many Washington state wines to retain their savory character even when it is paired with rich, ripe fruit flavors. Again and again I noticed herbaceous notes in Cabernet, and peppery, meaty notes in Syrah that added attractive detail and complexity on the palate. This is mostly like due to the climate here as well, those cool autumn night helping to temper the grapes proclivity to over-ripeness, but I do also believe that the rootstock plays some role in the vines ability to retain varietal character in a way that is becoming increasingly rare in the great growing regions of the world.

Variety

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!