DELICIOUS RED BLENDS FROM WASHINGTON
DELICIOUS RED BLEND WINES FROM WASHINGTON STATE
BY DAVID EHRENFRIED
So when was the last time you had a glass of wine from Washington State? You can be forgiven if your answer is, “Hmmm….” The selection of Washington wines available in east coast retail locations can be disappointing considering Washington makes more wine than any state in the U.S. besides California. They’re worth looking for because they deliver both high quality and excellent value. The value is so high it’s amazing to me retailers don’t stock more.
Among the better Washington values, are wines loosely categorized as “red blends.” These are wines made from varying combinations of black and red grape varietals, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot along with numerous others, where no single varietal’s content exceeds 75% of the mix. Below that limit, Washington wineries can’t legally label a wine “merlot,” for example, unless the wine is 75% or more merlot. “Red Blend”—even capitalized—isn’t very catchy. So many vintners give their blends colorful or whimsical marketing names, like “Flying Pig,” “D2,” “The Catalyst,” “Edge of Heaven,” “Mystique,” “The Devil You Know,” and—you guessed it—”The Devil You Don’t Know.”
Many of these red blends are Bordeaux-like wines made with hefty doses of cabernet sauvignon or merlot along with cabernet franc, petit verdot, and other varietals. Some are about as close in taste and character as any American wine gets to quality French Bordeaux. Others are more syrah-based, often blended with grenache and mourvèdre, to make Rhone-style wines. And some combine syrah with cabernet sauvignon, a style perfected in Australia.
The variations are endless, with some including five or more different varietals in boundless combinations. That can make buying and trying Washington red blends a bit like Forest Gump’s now proverbial box of chocolates. To paraphrase, you never quite know what you’re going to get. In reality, many fine wines from all over the world are intricate blends. Such uncertainty may be a drawback for some. But it’s also an essential part of exploring different wines—and one of the objectives of this column: to encourage readers to try and appreciate wines they haven’t had before.
SAMPLING RED BLENDS
I recently found and tasted seven moderately priced Washington red blends. They ranged between $13 and $36 a bottle, a good sweet spot for balancing quality and reasonable expense. It’s possible, of course, to spend less or considerably more on Washington red blends. As my tasting notes below indicate, some were truly delicious and memorable; others were less so. But they all were very good values when compared to similar wines from California or France.
Generally, these were not bashful wines. The best were rich wines with soft, round, and plush fruit flavors, usually combinations of black cherries, dark berries and plums. Some wines also included scents and tastes of toasty oak, chocolate, vanilla, pepper and licorice. They were consistently well balanced with a pleasant acidity that made them taste fresh, along with mostly mild tannins that made them easy to drink. I found the lack of tannic astringency a plus, even if that means these wines may not age for many years. Washington red blends, to my taste, tend to be more subtle and laid-back than many of their California counterparts. You can drink them young and enjoy them with a wide range of foods, including cheese, pasta, and many meat, poultry and fish dishes.
WASHINGTON WINE BACKDROP
My enthusiasm for the quality and value of Washington wines has an important backdrop in the state itself. Serious commercial winemaking in Washington began barely 50 years ago. Even though grapes were grown there as early as 1825, there were fewer than 20 licensed wineries in the state by the early 1980s. Among the pioneers were Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole No. 41, Leonetti Cellar, and Chateau St. Michelle, now one of the world’s largest and most successful wine producers. By 2000, there were barely 100 wineries. Today, there are over 1,000 wineries. They’re fed by hundreds of vineyards planted mainly on more than 60,000 acres located in the vast 11 million acre Columbia River basin on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.
This basin is an arid, hilly, desert-like landscape. It lies in an immense “rain shadow” created by the Cascades, which rob most of the moisture from the Pacific Ocean’s eastward-moving air. Annual precipitation in eastern Washington averages only 4-8 inches compared to more than 28 inches west of the Cascades. The conditions in the Columbia River basin turn out to be very nearly ideal for growing grapes, not to mention cherries, apples and pears. The soils in the basin drain well and combine minerals from ancient volcanic eruptions with other high nutrient materials deposited by massive post-Ice Age floods that helped shape much of the Pacific Northwest’s Rocky Mountain and desert landscapes. With modern irrigation, the Columbia, Yakima and Snake rivers provide ample water. Critically, however, the Columbia River basin lies between the 45 and 47 Parallels, roughly the same latitudes as the famous Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone wine regions in France and the Piedmont in Italy, famous for Barolo and Barbaresco. At these latitudes, the earth’s angle to the sun optimizes growing and harvest season daytime hours, giving grapes up to 17 daily daylight hours to mature and ripen. Also, the area’s unique conditions create huge temperature swings between warm days and cool nights. These diurnal fluctuations, often as much as 40-50 degrees, enable vines to produce grapes that can achieve acidity levels ideal for making bright and refreshing wines.
Value is also helped by that fact that compared to California, land and other wine production costs are lower in Washington than California.
TIPS FOR BUYING WASHINGTON RED BLENDS
Buying red wines from Washington State shouldn’t be difficult or time-consuming. The number of choices is unlikely to be anything like the selection from California or France. Among the Washington reds, you’ll likely see wines labeled cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah, along with an occasional malbec or other red varietals. You’ll probably also see some labeled “red blend” or with catchy names.
Next, on all better Washington wines you’ll see place names, such as Columbia Valley, Walla Walla, Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope, and Horse Heaven Hills. These are AVA (American Viticultural Area) names for where the grapes used to make each wine were grown. (Most Washington wines are made in Seattle wineries from grapes that have been trucked over the Cascades, similar to grapes grown in Portugal’s Douro River valley that are trucked to Porto and made into Port.) Eastern Washington has 18 different AVAs, but these five you’ll see most. Others you might see include Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Royal Slope, Ancient Lakes. The Walla Walla AVA is well known for superb, world-class Syrah wines—and also for the famously sweet Walla Walla onions that won’t make you cry when cut them.
I then suggest picking from well-regarded brands or wineries and figure on spending at least $15 to $25 to get solid quality. Less expensive wines are more likely to be thin or possibly characterless, a consequence of being be made from cheaper, lower quality grapes. Spending up to $50 may get you more complex, higher quality wines. The top tier of Washington red blends generally cost more than $50, with very few selling over $150.
Finally, to get a fix on how the wine will taste, look for the mix of grapes used in the wine. If it’s not on the front or back label, ask a sales person, or look up the wine or winery on the web. If the percentages are not listed, the order will tell you which varietals predominate. If you have a preference, pick wines where the varietals you prefer are listed first or second. I suggest trying cabernet sauvignon or merlot blends with three or four ingredients to get a sense of the signature Washington Bordeaux style. Syrah-based blends may only have two or three varietals and will be more in Rhone style.
In addition to the wineries in my tasting notes, here are others I recommend you consider: Betz, Cadence, Canoe Ridge, Cayuse, Desert Wind, L’Ecole, Force Majeur, Hedges, Horsepower, Latta, Leonetti, Owen Roe, Quilceda Creek, Reynvaan, Saviah, Sleight of Hand, Waterbrook, and Woodward Canyon.
2015 Delille Cellers D2, Columbia Valley ($35-40): A delicious and sophisticated Bordeaux-inspired blend with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Wonderfully rich and velvety smooth, with cedar and red and dark berry aromas and cherry, berry, and plum flavors. Long lingering finish.
2016 Mercer Family Vineyards Edge of Heaven Blend, Horse Heaven Hills ($17-19): Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Petit Verdo, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Fresh, smooth, round, nicely balanced, and easy-going. Pops with blackberry, currant and plum aromas and dark cherry and berry flavors. Excellent value.
2016 Hedges Family Estate C.M.S., Columbia Valley ($11-15): Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Light fruit and woody aromas with straightforward red berry flavors. Tasty and pleasant but a bit thin. Pleasant enough but not a wine for special occasions.
2017 Luke Red Blend, Wahluke Slope ($16-19): Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Great value. Cedar, earthy, and plum scents with layers of dark fruit and other flavors. Complex and enjoyable.
2017 Apex Cellars The Catalyst Red Blend, Columbia Valley ($17-20): Merlot, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Everything but the kitchen sink is in this wine. On the lighter side. Flavorful and easy-going but not memorable, except for the hit of spice mid-palette.
2017 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Red Blend, Columbia Valley ($18-22): Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault, Barbera, and Mourvèdre. Really delicious. The Syrah and Merlot come through with deep, smokey fruit , chocolate, and vanilla. Full-bodied with a nice velvety texture.
2018 Sheridan Vineyards Mystique, Yakima Valley ($27-32): Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. A serious, very tasty, and full-bodied Bordeaux style with soft texture, loads of cherry, blackberry, and plum plus chocolate and tobacco. Bit too tannic now, suggesting it could improve in a couple years.
2018 Mark Ryan Winery The Dissident, Columbia Valley ($36-40): Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Excellent Washington Bordeaux style. Delicious with cherry and berry fruit, loamy earth, oak, cocoa, vanilla and spice. Smooth with pleasing balance of soft tannins and refreshing acidity. Still young; probably better in a couple years.
If you are looking for gifts for wine lovers, click here for David Ehrenfried’s picks.
If you’ve missed dining out during the pandemic, click here to read Susan Rosser’s “A Love Letter to Restaurants.”