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Whither Washington Whites?
By Jim Clarke
Sep 30, 2014
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Many regions receive more attention, in the form of press coverage and high scores, for their red wines than their whites.  This seems particularly true for Washington state, despite the fact that the state’s production is more-or-less evenly divided between the two.  Even some of the state’s producers don’t seem too excited about white wine; several years ago I asked Master Sommelier Greg Harrington, proprietor of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, for some ideas on white wines to create a Washington whites section for my list at Megu…and he had no recommendations.

Of the 51% of Washington’s plantings that are white, the contenders for a signature white wine variety would seem to be Chardonnay and Riesling.  There are 2558 hectares of Riesling in Washington, up from 770 hectares fifteen years ago.  Much of that is in the hands of the state’s oldest and largest producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle; in fact, they are the world’s largest producer of Riesling, making over 1.2 million cases from the 2012 vintage.  Other notable Washington Riesling producers in terms of scale would include Pacific Rim (about 285,000 cases of Riesling) and Charles Smith’s Kung Fu Girl (180,000 cases).  Nevertheless, when the subject of American Riesling comes up, most sommeliers will -- assuming they have anything to say on the subject at all -- turn to New York’s Finger Lakes, despite the fact that Washington has five times the plantings and Chateau Ste. Michelle’s output alone exceeds that of New York as a whole.

Casting it in sommelier terms is a bit of a set up; aside from Kung Fu Girl, neither Pacific Rim nor Chateau Ste. Michelle focus on the on-premise world of the sommeliers.  When you need to move that many cases of wine, retailers are your priority.  But one can still wonder why it is so easy to identify New York with Riesling, but not Washington. 

Given how sommeliers and the rest of the wine-drinking world typically learn about wine, I expect there’s an element of cognitive dissonance involved.  Once we’ve learn that the eastern half of the state’s climate has nothing to do with the drizzly images of Seattle with which we were familiar, we come to think of Washington as a warm, even hot winegrowing region, though we may also understand that some vineyards experience large daily temperature swings during the growing season -- up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in some cases.  And we understand Riesling to be a cool climate grape, with German Riesling (for good reason) as the ideal.  So a “cool climate” grape succeeding for a few producers in a warm region stands in the brain as an exception…even if it’s 1.2 million case exception like Chateau Ste. Michelle.

To this point, it seems that only a few of the state’s other producers are out to get on the Riesling bandwagon and make a key part of their portfolio.  Rather, Riesling has come to be seen to be as a specialty of these individual producers--not of the state.

For Chateau Ste. Michelle, their partnership with Ernst Loosen, Eroica, has succeeded in capturing the attention of sommeliers and critics, showing that Washington Riesling can be bothintense and complex.  And ageworthy too -- today they release the wine both as a current vintage and as a library wine; comparing the 2012 and the 2007, the latter is richer and more honeyed but at the same time tastes drier (The residual sugar generally falls around 16-20 grams/Liter), and clearly has a long life ahead of it.  The work on Eroica has improved the quality of Ste. Michelle’s other Rieslings as well, redefining, it would seem, how the company generally looks at sweetness.  Previously, the wines seemed to be sweet because that’s what the market expected from the grape; now the acidity is better balanced. 

For all that, Washington actually makes more Chardonnay than Riesling in total; at 3097 hectares, it is the state’s most planted white.  But with the ubiquity of Chardonnay in the rest of the world, it’s a difficult grape for which to become famous as a source.  Washington’s best renditions can go head-to-head California’s; Cote Bonneville’s 2011, for example, is big-boned but structured, with well-balanced oak and baked pear and lemon curd notes –- but that still doesn’t quite make it a signature grape.

The Washington State Wine Commission claims the state’s Chardonnays tend to be lighter, lower in alcohol, and less oaked than in other regions; I’d hold up the 2013 Powers Chardonnay as an example of this profile.  However, putting that characterization next to the state’s third most planted grape, Pinot Gris (although in doing so we drop down from thousands of hectares to a modest 638), and I think we start to see what role white wines have been filling for many of Washington’s producers: the cash cow.  Wines that are cheap to make because they don’t require oak or aging, and can be bottled and moved out of the winery before the next harvest comes around.  A fast turn-around means no cash tied up in inventory and aging and less clutter in the winery when the next harvest is coming in. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Many enjoyable, quality wines can be made that way (and not just in Washington), and there’s a lot to be said for staying in business.  But many of the most interesting Washington whites come from varieties that aren’t planted en masse, at least not there.  It’s not unique to Washington that--when a winery makes a specialty of a less-mainstream grape--the results can often punch above their weight class; if there’s not a pre-existing market for the variety, it has to be that much better to sell.

Washington has just 90 hectares of Semillon, but it, as a varietal wine or the attendant white Bordeaux-style blends, stands out.  L’Ecole No. 41 has been making two renditions for years.  Their varietally-labelled 2012 (which actually contains 13% Sauvignon Blanc) is fresh but with some roundness on the palate, while the “Luminescence,” a 60/40 Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend sourced from the Seven Hills vineyard, is a spicier, oak-aged example.  DeLille Cellars “Chaleur Blanc” 2012, another single-vineyard blend, oak-aged blend (this time 65% - 35%), is a bit more muscular and toasty, with a strong acid backbone.  If wine drinkers ever catch on to the pleasures of white Bordeaux blends, Washington may be well positioned to take advantage.

There are also some interesting Gewurztraminers (Gilbert Cellars is a good example) and a few Chenin Blancs -- a grape that seems to have been planted throughout the New World at some time or another thanks to its generous yields, but which always requires work in the vineyard to reduce its vigor and the washed out wines that can result.  L’Ecole #41 and Kiona have embraced the grape with success, albeit both in a lightly sweet style.  Chenin retains its acidity well, even in warm climates, but as with Riesling, does it really retain it so well that sweetness is necessary for balance?

Finally, as Syrah and other red Rhône varieties become more prominent, producers haven’t left the Rhone white Viognier behind, though quantities are still small.  The Powers 2013 Viognier works the floral, almost bubble gum aromatic side of the grape.  Gramercy Cellars has been Syrah-focused from the beginning; it’s only fitting that Viognier was the choice when they decided to make a white wine.  Their 2013 is focused, almost lean, and certainly determined not to be oily the way some warm climate Viogniers are.  In 2013 they also made a refreshing and peachy Picpoul.  At the time it looked to be a one-off, as the vineyard was subsequently ripped up and replanted to Grenache, but another Picpoul grower, impressed with what Gramercy had achieved with the grape, has been in touch with the winery, so we may hope to see more.

Behind that Syrah-Viognier connection probably lies the real reason Washington has yet to tackle the question of its white wine “identity,” namely, that its red wine identity is still in flux.  Fifteen years ago there was much talk of Merlot, talk that was hushed up after that grape’s fall from grace.  Today Cabernet, the state’s most planted red, leads the way; Syrah has less than a third as much planted, but is on the rise and receiving a great deal of praise.  More correctly, one might say that the battle is not between Cabernet and Syrah, but between Bordeaux-style and Rhône-style wines; Washington’s producers seem much more inclined to producing blends along these lines than many other New World areas.  So questions of a signature white may have to wait while the reds fight it out.

Of course, that’s all predicated on finding signature varieties that best suit the terroir…or perhaps I should say, best suit the market (see Merlot).  Or maybe Washington--like some other New World regions still finding their way in the market--will find that hitching their star to just one or two grapes is not the best way forward in any case.