Washington Wines Pack High Alcohol Wallop, Little Else

On a recent trip to Seattle I had the chance to revisit the wines of Washington state, the nation’s second largest premium wine producer after California.

I’ve always had high regard for a few estates like the pioneering Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest.

Washington has had wine grape plantings since 1825, and today the state has 750 wineries and 13 approved appellations selling $3 billion a year.

Yet, it only became a modern viticultural region during the 1970s, when strides were made in producing consistently good vinifera like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the Yakima and Columbia River valleys.

Since then, there has been a good deal of experimentation with other varietals like riesling, semillon and syrah, and some of the state’s very best wines are late harvest dessert wines. Rieslings in particular have compared variably with those in Alsace and New York state for their balance of fruit and acidity.

Washington has always prided itself on intense, highly tannic, high-alcohol wines that show well in their youth but often lose brightness and complexity with age. This, I’m sorry to say, was even more prevalent among the wines I sampled then I can recall from previous tastings.

One Dimensional

The most salient example was a Woodward Canyon Old Vines Dedication Series #28 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($75) from Walla Walla. With a whopping 16.5 percent alcohol, it was all full-tilt tannin and new oak, and after just half a glass, I found nothing distinctive about it except for its one-dimensional character. After five years this monster should have loosened up but hasn’t.

The same winery’s Artist Series #18 ($45) was only 15.8 percent alcohol, but still felt like a blow to the palate rather than a pleasurable wine, despite a Bordeaux-like blend of cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and syrah in with the cabernet sauvignon.

Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, is a much-ballyhooed cult favorite that sells in stores for between $300 and $400. At 14.9 percent alcohol and a decade old it was a blockbuster, but once it exploded in the mouth, there was no finish of any kind.

Veal Chop

I found relief from the brash alcohol levels with a well-fruited Seven Hills Merlot 2007 ($22) whose softness was due to the varietal, while an inexpensive cabernet sauvignon from Chaz Point 2010 ($18) showed round levels of fruit and a pleasing lushness that went very well with a veal chop over dinner.

There was also a good mix of strawberry-like fruit and cherry flavors in JM Cellars Tre Fanciulli 2007 ($35). It’s a judicious blend of 67 percent cabernet sauvignon, 19 percent merlot and 14 percent syrah which boosted the elegance of the wine. At only 14.4 percent alcohol, it shows how the terroir of the Columbia Valley, whose south-facing slopes get a great deal of solar radiation, can produce power within a velvet glove.

Among the rieslings I drank in Seattle, I very much enjoyed a citrus-bright Efeste Evergreen Vineyard 2011 ($17) that was an ideal match with cold shellfish.

Boom Boom

Washington vintners have a knack for quirky names for their wines, like Boom Boom, Livewire and Jigsaw. Kung Fu Girl, a riesling by Charles Smith, is a crowd pleaser at about $10; it makes no pretensions other than to show off good apple, melon flavors and a little sweetness that makes it a fine aperitif.

Smith says that he “focuses on the way people generally consume wine today: immediately. The intent was (and still is) to create wines to be enjoyed now, but with true ’typicity’ of both the varietal and the vineyard.” His motto? “It’s just wine, drink it.”

Wine is a lot more, certainly, but Washington vintners should step away from thinking that a bigger wine is a better wine.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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