Washington ranks second among U.S. states for wine production. Obviously dwarfed in volume by California, Washington is nevertheless represented in wine stores and restaurant menus across the country.
But can customers define Washington wine? Do they know how the state fits into the American viticultural landscape?
These were topics Tuesday at “Washington and the World: A Comparative Seminar,” hosted at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel by Washington winemakers. These included Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery, Michael Savage of Savage Grace Wines and Peter Devison of EFESTĒ. This was how they defined the current state and characteristics of Washington wine:
1) Cascade Range Creates Terroir
About 1% of Washington’s wines are made on the state’s wetter, cooler western half. The remaining majority comes from the other side of the Cascade mountain range. These cut through the state’s center and cause the eastern half to be drier and warmer. On this side is the Columbia Valley AVA, which covers almost 50% of the state, and 10 smaller AVAs.
Terroir in the eastern half is defined by rocky, sandy, weak soils, explains Betz. With soils so low in fertility, growing conditions can be desert-like. But this is a positive. Since growth is not naturally rampant, “we can control the winemaking conditions,” Betz explains Betz.
Rainfall is scant. Sometimes, no more than six-to-ten meters per year. However, melting snowpack atop the Cascade Range produces a deep aquifer that Betz says supplements rainfall by an additional eight-to-10 inches per year. “We have abundant rivers for irrigation,” he explains.
Altogether the result is land “good for classic vinifer varieties” like the Riesling, Syrah and Cab Sauv we tasted during the seminar, Betz explains, because the harsh soils and available aquifer allow winemakers to be “in control with mother nature.”
2) Wines With Backbone And Strong Fruit
Betz has seen a vintage or two in Washington — 41, to be exact — and has settled on a broad definition of the state’s wines. “We produce wines with strong backbones that hold onto the primary fruit,” he says.
More specifically, he means wines that hold onto their primary fruit flavors. These are bottles with lasting fruit flavor and 15-to-20 years in ageability. So long as Washington winemakers work within the natural parameters of their terroir.
“One of the greatest developments now in Washington wine is greater specificity in the marriage of site and variety,” Betz explains. “Growers are getting more precise in what varietal works where. Even down to the specific clones in some instances.”
Savage agrees: “I have to think, ‘I’m not growing Pinot in Tuscany. I’m making Washington wine.”
3) Big Brands Dominate
Outside of Manhattan, which contains all the world’s wine, what’s the footprint of Washington?
“It’s dichotomous,” Betz says. There are two camps of Washington wine, one being the major brands everyone knows: Chateau St. Michelle, Wahluke Wine Co., K Vintners, Columbia Winery, etcetera. The other are numerous little vineyards that comprise 90% of the Washington industry but sell only 30% of the wine.
That means that the other 70% of sales derive from the handful of major brands. For Washington wine to take that next step, the little guys likely need a better profile on the big stage.
4) Washington Is North In Context Only
You probably think of Washington as a northern state. After all, it’s two states above California, right?
True. Though that hardly means it’s a land of frost fields and ice rinks. Rather, Washington sits mostly between the 46°N and 48°N latitude, not far off from Piedmont’s 45°N or Bordeaux’s 44°N, and matching Burgundy’s 47°N.
This lends the state a “northern continental” climate, Betz says. Summers are hot to very hot, and winters are cold to very cold, so much that vines can go dormant. During growing season temperature can shift 30-50 degrees from day to night.
All this allows Washington winemakers to harvest as late as possible, leading to ripened grapes with strong backbones and lasting fruit flavors.
5) Global Warming Is Overstated
A common concern about Washington wine these days is the deleterious affect of global warming. The last six growing seasons have trended upwards in temperature.
But Betz thinks the concerns a little overblown. He wonders whether the current trend is part of a natural ebb-and-flow of temperature over time. “The ’77 and ’78 vintages were very warm, and then ’79 was the coldest on record,” he recalls.
Similarly, ’09 was the hottest since ’05, but was followed by the coldest year ever recorded in 2011, before 2012 was perfectly average in temperature.
“Yes, it’s been much warmer from ’13 to ’16, but I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Betz says.
And while hot weather means harvest occurs three-to-four weeks earlier, the fruit will also start showing earlier in the year. “In the end they’re getting the same amount of hang time,” he says.
6) Cab Sauv Shines
No surprise for this globally ubiquitous varietal. But Betz stresses that the grape excels in Washington’s warmer weather. Consequently, it’s the single largest planting throughout the state. And the malleable soils lead to an array of styles and flavors in Washington Cabernet Sauvignon.
Betz himself has a preferred production technique. He only ages Cab Sauv in French oak, mostly new. He’s experimented with other barrels — Slovenian, Hungarian — but finds that French alone maintains high quality through the time of bottling.
What grape does Betz foresee shining in Washington in decades ahead? Says this viticulture veteran, “Were I a younger man, I’d be planting Petite Verdot. It’s a wonderful performer in Washington.”
Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at email@example.com