The appeal of Napa is justified by its classic, iconic style of cabernet sauvignon – ripe, robust and concentrated. And let’s not forget the heavy oak influence of long-barrel aging in new French oak barrels. It’s no wonder why the wine is so enticing.
Along with their greatness has come fame and notoriety, which has resulted in an expensive price tag to boot. However, if we look north to Washington State, we can find similar wines comparable in quality but at a considerably more affordable price.
Similar to California, grapes were planted in Washington in the early 1800s, albeit table grapes which are not ideal for quality wine. Desirable vinifera vines were first planted in Yakima in 1871, and it wasn’t until after Prohibition and the New Deal that the Colombia River irrigation project converted this barren desert into an agricultural gem. Wineries began to accumulate and true quality gained speed in the 1950s with plantings of predominantly white varietals, such as semillon, muscat and riesling. Over time, vintners began to see that the Colombia Valley was also suitable to growing black grapes for the production of red wine. Today, there are over 1,000 wineries producing red, white, rosé, sparkling and fortified dessert wines.
Washington is made up of 14 official American Viticultural Areas and too many sub-AVAs to list here. The uniqueness of the state’s macro and micro climates is vital. Upwards of 70 grape varieties have found suitable conditions in the state’s vast range of climates. Originally, white wines dominated, but today, 65% of production is dedicated to red wine.
The state receives two additional daylight hours beyond what California gets, but conversely offers cooler nighttime temperatures. The resulting wines are equal in ripeness and richness, but because of the cooler nights, the wines offer a higher natural acidity. This combination makes for wines with a body and vibrancy that isn’t always found further south in California. This higher natural acidity enables the wines to age longer, if desired, and also make better food wines. This also aids in the wines’ capacity to handle new oak barrel aging, which translates into better integration.
Similar to Napa, cabernet sauvignon is king – followed by merlot, syrah and cabernet franc for red wines. Thanks to the popularity of Argentinian malbec, we are beginning to see additional plantings and production. For white wine fans, riesling tops the charts, followed by chardonnay, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. As mentioned, just about every varietal known by consumers, eonophiles and collectors can be found in the expansive terroir of Washington.
The good news is Washington wines are a great value comparatively speaking. The bad news: Here in Colorado, we do not have nearly the amount of options as to what is imported. While the Washington offerings available are minuscule compared to California’s, the experience is worth dipping into the limited quantities available.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.