Washington State 2021 and 2020: From the Frying Pan to the Fire

Life as a Washington State winemaker is never dull these days. Over the last decade, a succession of warm vintages has forced vineyard managers and winemakers to rethink their approach. Yet, the overall quality of Washington State wine has never been higher. Wineries continue to open. New vineyards are planted and new AVAs are proposed, all while the state deals with a few of the most challenging vintages ever: the smoke-affected 2020s and now the hottest vintage on record in 2021. Yet when the dust settles and the wines are bottled, Washington State continues to endure. While there are plenty of exceptional wines in the market, collectors should be excited for the 2022s and, most likely, the 2023s. This report looks primarily at the newly-released Bordeaux variety wines and a few timely updates from outside the category. To catch up on the Rhône wines, check out my last report, “Rhône’s on the Rise: Washington State Takes the Lead.” My appreciation for Washington State runs deep. It only grows each time I taste these wines and spend time on the ground with producers. First and foremost, prices have increased, but the cost of a Washington Bordeaux blend remains a tremendous value compared to the likes of California and Sonoma. While some producers have begun to bridge this gap, the amount of world-class wine made in Washington at reasonable prices is astounding. Moreover, beyond the prestige wines, I’m often amazed by the level of quality found in some producers’ entry-level bottlings. Oftentimes, wineries release these offerings under a separate brand just to conserve the value of their primary portfolio. To list a few, in no specific order, Substance (House of Smith), Involuntary Commitment (Andrew Will), Secret Squirrel (Corliss), City Limits (Two Vintners) and M100 (Fidelitas) are all wines that I would welcome at my dinner table any night of the week. As for the style, another defining factor of Washington State is its love of blending. These are true Bordeaux blends, relying not just on Cabernet Sauvignon (although you can find many varietal examples) but also on Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and, a personal favorite of mine, Merlot. I know there is still a lot of misguided controversy over the latter, but the fact is that Washington State excels with Merlot. It’s the healthy addition within many blends that not only sets them apart but makes them shine. However, if Cabernet Sauvignon is your thing, the Red Mountain AVA is a great place to start. Previous tastings led me to spend a good amount of time in Red Mountain this year to better understand better terroir and what sets the wines apart. The qualities of this subregion showed early on in the relatively short modern-day history of Washington State wine. Recognized as of 2001, today, the AVA produces many of the state’s big and structured reds. Expect power, complexity and gripping tannins. Many producers will tell you that Red Mountain, with its southwest-facing vineyards and prolonged exposure to the sun, is one of the few locations in Washington that can promise to bring Cabernet Sauvignon to perfect ripeness in every vintage. Red Mountain is also warmer on average than surrounding AVAs and witnesses drastic temperature dips at night. It’s no wonder that many of the best-known vineyards in Washington are found here. These include Grand Ciel, Ciel du Cheval, Galitzine, Quintessence, Tapteil, WeatherEye and Force Majeure, to name but a few. Outside of Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, it’s easy to find a parcel of just about any grape imaginable somewhere within the state, and all are often worth checking out. Land is much more affordable in Washington State than its competition, so expansion and experimentation remain possible. Working with the twenty (and growing) AVAs, producers do a fantastic job of communicating terroir, which says a lot for a region that would otherwise resemble a desert if it wasn’t for the irrigation produces can tap into from the Columbia and Yakima Rivers. Moreover, despite the ever-growing heat, diurnal shifts can range from 35 to 47 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the state, which helps maintain balanced acidity in the grapes. Lastly, dry and windy conditions ward off disease throughout the east. All these factors make Washington State an appealing location to create and source wine. The potential for growth and further terroir exploration is enough to excite any wine lover. Unfortunately, what producers do need to contend with are growing seasons, and this is where things get very tricky. --Eric Guido, Washington State 2021 and 2020: From the Frying Pan to the Fire, January 2024 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ To read about the two extremes, the 2020 and 2021 vintages, check out the full article on Vinous now . Enjoy a few of Eric's tasting notes below.