- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003


L’Ecole 41, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, 2001, $38.

If you’re looking for a special wine this holiday, look to Washington — not our fair city, but Washington state, where vintners nowadays are fashioning some remarkably sumptuous, elegant wines. The best can more than hold their own with the finest in all the world.

Although Washington whites, particularly the state’s top Rieslings and chardonnays, can be quite good, the real stars of the Evergreen State are red. Most are Bordeaux-styled, meaning fashioned primarily from cabernet or merlot, although more and more wineries have started to experiment with syrah.

The top Washington reds tread a middle ground between California opulence and French reserve. Like their Napa and Sonoma counterparts, they tend to taste first and foremost of ripe fruit, but much like fine Bordeaux, they evidence an admirable restraint, with a firm structure and an exciting depth of flavor that hints at something more.

Until recently, those hints were confined to wines made by a handful of producers, many of whom ran such small operations that their wines were nearly impossible to find here on the East Coast. Wineries such as Leonetti Cellars and Quilceda Creek still make fantastic wines that you can buy only if you get on their mailing lists, but they now have been joined by a bevy of others, whose wines are much easier to locate.

Some of these wineries (Andrew Will, DeLille and Pepper Bridge come to mind) are fairly new — or at least new to this market. Others have been around for a while but are making ever better wines.

Of this last group, the most exciting undoubtedly is Chateau Ste. Michelle. The cornerstone of the large Stimson Lane conglomerate, Ste. Michelle produces a wide range of wines, almost all of which are good and the best of which are simply superb. This impressive company’s single-vineyard and reserve offerings seem to get better just about every year.

Ste. Michelle played a leading role in bringing serious viticulture and winemaking to the state in the 1970s, when the company first purchased land and planted grapes in previously untried areas east of the Cascade Range. Today, all the top Washington wines are made with grapes grown there.

Eastern Washington is mostly high desert, nothing at all like rainy, evergreen Seattle to the west. As such, irrigation is necessary for agriculture on any significant scale. Luckily, the Columbia River traverses the state, and the vineyards are farmed with water sourced from it.

Irrigation can lead to an abundance of high-quality fruit, which helps explain why many Washington wines sell for affordable, if not bargain, prices. In addition to Chateau Ste. Michelle, look for the Columbia Crest, Hedges, Hogue, and Snoqualmie labels when shopping for wines costing less than $15 a bottle.

The best Washington wines, though, do not benefit from high yields. Instead, as with top wines made anywhere, high quality invariably corresponds with low crop levels. Whether this occurs naturally as a result of a marginal locale or through human intervention, less fruit hanging on the vine will concentrate and intensify the flavor of the remaining grapes, resulting in wines with distinct personalities.

The rapid rise in quality of the best Washington wines is related directly to the lowering of yields in the state’s top vineyards. That has happened as more vintners have become directly involved with growing (rather than simply purchasing) grapes. For consumers, this results in some truly thrilling wines.

The following 12 reds, listed in a rough order of preference, were the top performers in a recent series of tastings, featuring most of the Washington state wines available in any reasonable quantity in this market. Although not cheap, they are significantly less expensive than wines of comparable quality from California or France. Eastern Washington is poised to challenge Northern California as the source of America’s very best red wines. Find out why before everyone else does.

Pepper Bridge Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla, 2000, $55. Simply outstanding, this is one of the best young reds I’ve tasted this year. Elegant, harmonious, and very, very classy, it offers plenty of dark berry flavor as well as a satisfying, spicy undertone. The Pepper Bridge vineyard, outside Walla Walla, has provided many Washington wineries with high-quality grapes for many years. The winery, now five years old, is one to watch.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Meritage, Columbia Valley, 1999, $52. Wonderfully deep and full but at the same time elegant and refined, this Bordeaux-styled blend outperforms the vast majority of its California counterparts. Although powerful, there is nothing remotely hot or heavy about it.

Andrew Will, Merlot, Pepper Bridge Vineyard, 2000, $41. An elegant wine, showing restraint more than muscle, this wine will confuse many tasters into thinking it comes from France. It has the tannic backbone to ensure graceful aging.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cold Creek Vineyard, 2000, $30. The Cold Creek Vineyard, east of Yakima, was one of Ste. Michelle’s first ventures into serious wine growing. This cabernet evidences the ripe fruit but firm structure characteristic of wines (white as well as red) grown there.

Hedges, Red Mountain Reserve, Columbia Valley, 1999, $50. A firm structure of tannin encases deep, long flavors in this powerful, potentially long-lived wine. Previous vintages have aged impressively.

Northstar, Merlot, Columbia Valley, 1999, $57. Showy and sexy, with lots of sweet fruit (and sweet oak), but excellent structure, and depth and a long, evolving finish.

Col Solare, Columbia Valley, 1999, $70. Richly perfumed and very elegant, this cabernet-based blend comes from a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori from Italy’s Tuscany region. It’s better than many, if not most, super-Tuscans.

Apex, Merlot, Columbia Valley, 1999, $30. Rich and ripe, initially almost jammy (like some California reds). With a little time in the glass, it calms down and shows depth and grip.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Merlot, Indian Wells Vineyard, 2001, $18. A great value. Fruity and lush, with plenty of stuffing to ensure longevity.

Apex, Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, 1999, $30. More restrained than the Apex merlot. Genuinely elegant.

Columbia Winery, Syrah, Red Willow Vineyard, David Lake Series, Yakima Valley, 1999, $45.# The one syrah I’m recommending (although I did not taste wines from Cayuse or McCrea, both of which have proven success with the varietal) tastes seductively spicy, rich and deep.

L’Ecole 41, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, 2001, $38. There’s a lot of ripe fruit here, but also a lot of oak. Give it time to harmonize.

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