Photo and article by: James Suckling | July 12, 2021
We have to wonder: If more people had the chance to drink Washington syrah, would the state be an even more famous wine region and the grape even more popular around the world?
This year we rated 470 Washington wines in our tasting room in Hong Kong and we were amazed with the balance and depth of fruit and character in so many syrahs as well as grenache and other Rhone varietals. Sure, we had a handful of stunning Bordeaux blends or cabernet sauvignons, including the Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2018 and Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain Galitzine Vineyard 2018. But it was the Rhone-inspired reds from such producers as Cayuse and K Vintners that really persuaded us to drink Washington reds this year.
We have been writing about the Rhone trend in the world of Washington state wines for some time now. But the 2018 vintage really seems to bring it all to a head. Of the 56 wines rated 95 points or more, 32 were made with Rhone varietals – from syrah to grenache to mourvedre. This didn’t count the syrah and cabernet blends, which can be equally persuasive. It really is a great time to buy and drink these wines from Washington.
“Syrah is like a chameleon,” said Christophe Baron, the owner and winemaker at Cayuse Vineyards in Walla Walla Valley. “It wants to take terroir and translate it into the wines. And that’s definitely a grape that does that very well in comparison to merlot or cabernet sauvignon, for instance. It really breathes the place.”
The Growth of Washington Syrah: Thoughts from the founder of Cayuse Vineyards.
Vintage Like No Other: Alex Stewart gives his thoughts on 2018.
Within the individual valley AVAs of Walla Walla, Yakima and Columbia, wines made from syrah display unique personalities. Grapes grown in Walla Walla’s stony, ancient riverbed soils show greater earthy, umami characters – like the smoked meat and balsamic notes in one of our top five wines, Cayuse Vineyards Syrah Walla Walla Valley Bionic Frog 2018, while the cooler, higher-altitude foothills produce more peppery wines.
For both syrah and grenache, Baron believes that a significant proportion of stem inclusion gives a beautiful spiciness and pepperiness to the wine, harking back to the traditional style of the Northern Rhone.
“There’s more people using whole cluster than ever,” Baron said. “A range of whole cluster brings definitely that spiciness, brings that core structure to the wine and brings a lot of freshness. It’s all about the freshness.”
Rhone-inspired whites such as viognier and roussanne also shone. K Vintners Viognier Walla Walla Valley Powerline Estate 2018 showed Northern-Rhone sensibility, with a spicy, rich yet fresh personality.
“I feel like Washington adds that same value-to-quality ratio that Rhone used to do back in the day,” said Brennon Leighton, the winemaker at K Vintners.
However, even with all this said about Washington’s Rhone renaissance, the state still makes some awesome Bordeaux blends as well as some exciting malbecs and a few other esoteric wines, from aglianico to tempranillo. We already mentioned the great Quilceda Creek reds in our tastings, but high-quality names such as Betz, Figgins, Leonetti Cellar, Col Solare, Upchurch, and L’Ecole No 41 showed some great wines as well this year.
While these wineries highlight the great quality winemaking in the state, they also make us wonder why more names aren’t making super-quality wines. Granted, we are only rating a fraction of the wines available in the state, which has more than 900 wineries, and we focus on the top wines available in the United States and abroad. Yet we believe that there’s such great quality potential for Washington wines in producing bottles that are very unique in nature and style and we want to taste more.
“There’s a lot of incredible winemaking … and a lot of good viticulture that’s happening in the state,” Leighton said. “It’s just in such small amounts that most of the public doesn’t get to see it.”
The best of Washington distinguish themselves by producing wines with greater sensibility and drinkability, and the state’s winemakers seem to always be looking for ways to evolve and improve. For example, since trials in 2014, K Vintners’ wines have undergone a notable transition to a fresher, less extracted style. 2018 was “the cut where everything went that way,” Leighton said. We were impressed by K Vintners Grenache Walla Walla Valley The Boy 2018, a step up from previous vintages, with greater focus and precision thanks to less extended maceration, whole cluster fermentation and no new oak.
While the top producers’ consistency is impressive, there is room for improvement. Leighton believes that although some of the new generation of small producers have aspiration, they would benefit from gaining more experience. “They don’t do the proper steps where they go and learn from somebody,” Leighton said. “They kind of just take the leap [by] themselves and so their learning curve is so steep.”
A string of excellent vintages may help the availability of great wines from Washington. Our tastings this year focused on the 2018 vintage, which began with a cool and slightly delayed budbreak, followed by a warm summer from May to August. The harvest period was cool and dry, allowing growers to pick without rain pressure.
The Best Year? Brennon Leighton of K Vintners on 2020 versus 2018.
“All of September and October was just this incredible long harvest window that allowed winemakers to really nail […] their picking dates, the development they wanted,” said Alex Stewart, the former winemaker at Quilceda Creek, who recently moved to Matthews Winery. Thankful for a long harvest window from Sept. 20 to Nov. 7, he said, “For us, we want a lot of hang time to develop that phenolic ripeness.” Their Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2018 was the best that we have tasted so far, with more complexity and sophistication than previous vintages, with precise tannins and retaining freshness.
Leighton of K Vintners agreed that 2018 gave perfect conditions for tannin and flavor maturity without acid loss. “The ‘18s are far more elegant, refined, balanced,” he said. “I think they’re going to age a lot better than the ‘17s.”
In our top five highest-rated Washington wines, K Vintners Syrah Yakima Valley Motor City Kitty 2018 showed a significant step up from 2017 and 2016, with great transparency and energy.
Some of the top producers are expressing a welcome preference for fresher, lower alcohol wines. Baron of Cayuse said that while he really enjoys his 2018 wines and that 2018 “is quite a statement,” he would have preferred them with half a degree less alcohol.
“Under 14 would be nice, but we could not do that in ‘18, and that’s OK,” he said. “I embrace the vintage and I know a lot of people are going to say, ‘He’s crazy, it’s only 14.4.’” Indeed, a few of the 2018 reds we tasted had a warm finish, especially from the warmer Red Mountain AVA, with alcohol levels over 15 percent.
By comparison, the 2017 vintage was even warmer than the 2018 and similar to 2016. Heat spikes in August and high UV levels resulted in grapes with more ripe and dried fruit aromatics and, depending on vineyard site, loss of acid.
The 2019 was a cooler vintage, with wines retaining more acidity. Despite frost in October leading to a scramble to harvest in some sites, Baron said “I think that ‘19 is going to be another classic vintage: basically I think ‘19 is going to be a cross between ‘17 and ‘18.”
We can’t wait to taste the new wines from 2019 next year, regardless of whether they are syrah or not.
– Claire Nesbitt, taster and associate editor, with James Suckling, editor
The list of wines below is comprised of bottles tasted and rated during the previous week by James and other tasters at JamesSuckling.com. They include many latest releases not yet available on the market, but which will be available soon. Some will be included in upcoming tasting reports.