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The Two Vintages for ‘Perfect’ Washington State Wine

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One of the hallmarks of Washington wine is consistency.

Part of the state’s recipe for success is ever-warm summers in the Columbia Valley, where grapes always ripen. The desert-dry conditions also mean irrigation is required, giving growers control over the timing and amount of water vines receive. Combined with cool nights that retain acidity, these factors have led to quality so consistently high some have questioned whether Washington truly has vintage variation.

Though the answer has always been yes, the qualitative range from year to year is surely narrower than many other viticultural regions. Recent years, however, have shown more readily apparent differences across vintages, as growers and vintners grapple with a rapidly changing climate.

Quality has remained high throughout, but contrasts in style can be sharp, as shown in two recent years, 2018 and 2019.

stylized Washington wine bottles
Photo by Tom Arena

A Decade of Challenges

The last decade indicates just how different each year has been in Washington. While 2011 was the coolest vintage on record, 2012 tracked perfectly to 20-year historical averages. The next three vintages could be categorized as hot, hotter and hottest, with 2015 the warmest vintage on record. When 2016 galloped out of the gates, it tracked ahead of 2015 before finishing cool. In 2017, meanwhile, growers had wildfire smoke and another cool finish to contend with.

“This is my 11th year [at DeLille Cellars], and I have to admit, it feels like it’s getting harder,” says Jason Gorski, the producer’s Woodinville-based director of winemaking and viticulture. “There’s nothing predictable now.”

For a state where many winemakers are located far from their vineyard sources, the varied climate has created a myriad of challenges. Growers, however, are on the front line.

“I don’t recall worrying about growers nearly as much 10 years ago as I do now,” says Gorski. While the final results continue to be impressive, they haven’t come easily.

“Once we get the fruit, in every vintage that we’ve seen in the last 10 years, there have been great wines,” says Peter Devison, owner and winemaker at Devison Vintners in Walla Walla. “It’s just been harder to get there.”

2018: A Near Perfect Vintage

In 2018, summer temperatures were warm, with occasional smoke from distant wildfires. What followed was a pretty ideal harvest season.

“September is the most important month in Washington, and [September of] ’18 was near perfect in my opinion,” says Devison.

Mike Sauer, who has been growing fruit at Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley for nearly 50 years, agrees.

“It was one of the best harvest seasons that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said in 2018, after the season ended. “Nearly nine weeks of perfect, perfect ripening weather.”

Whereas in recent hot years, rapidly rising sugars and dropping acids sometimes forced winemakers to pick—or they frantically dropped fruit in cool years to help ripen what was left—the warm-but-not-hot harvest of 2018 provided more latitude.

“You had these picking windows that allowed you to really hone your style through your pick decision,” says Devison.

The largely stress-free year, for most, was welcome.

“It was one of the easiest years,” says Marie-Eve Gilla, winemaker at Valdemar Estates in Walla Walla. “I would go home, and my kids would be surprised to see me. They would say, ‘Why aren’t you at the winery?’ ”

Almost immediately, winemakers knew they had something special.

“Even just from the press, you could tell,” says Chris Peterson, partner and winemaker at Avennia in Woodinville. “There were smaller berries and just saturated colors. The wines were black.”

In addition to great color, the ’18s have depth of flavor, layering, structure and, most of all, superb balance. They are some of the best wines the state has produced in the last 20 years. Many liken 2018 to the well-regarded 2012 vintage, but Devison takes it a step further.

“It’s like 2012 on steroids,” he says. “You take 2012, which is soft and nectarous, and 2010, which is structured and stoic, [and] you put those together, you’ve got ’18.”

two stylized Washington wine bottles
Photo by Tom Arena

Contrast in Sophisticated 2019

If 2018 was largely worry free, 2019 was not. It started with a curveball storm that dumped snow in the vineyard right when pruning would normally start. A warm, but not overly hot, summer followed. Come harvest, things took another turn.

“The second week of September, [the heat] just shut off,” says Gorski. “It just never got warm again.”

A well-forecast frost the second week of October punctuated the growing season a full two weeks before it typically finishes, with late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon still on the vine in some places.

“We were mostly all in,” says Louis Skinner, winemaker at Woodinville’s Betz Family Winery, which had thinned its crop considerably earlier in the summer. “But there were a lot of folks that had left the kind of more typical crop load out there that I think were really, really struggling after that.”

With the 2019 red wines just starting to be released, the results stand stylistically in sharp contrast to wines from the prior year.

“It’s almost the complete opposite of ’18, but in a good way,” Devison says. “Where ’18 had broad shoulders, brooding fruit and layered, structured tannins, ’19 was fresh, energetic and supple, soft, pretty and nuanced.”

If “perfect” was the buzzword for 2018, the ’19s are most commonly called “pretty,” with abundant elegance, a textured feel, polished tannins and elevated freshness.

“They’ve got a very different texture than the ’18s,” says Gorski. “They’re kind of silky instead of the really firm, structured ’18s. They’re really, really pretty, but they don’t lack for concentration or color.”

Washington wine bottles
Photo by Tom Arena

State Looks to the Future

What will a rapidly changing climate ultimately mean for Washington long-term? Growers and winemakers are still figuring that out.

“You have to be more nimble now for sure,” says Chris Figgins, president and winemaking director at Walla Walla’s Figgins Family Wine Estates. “It’s not going to change. In fact, the rate of change may continue to accelerate.”

For many Washington winemakers, the changing conditions have meant spending much more time in the vineyard.

“The windows [for picking] in certain vintages can be so short,” says Devison.

Hot or cold temperatures also mean fruit can come in all at once, creating capacity issues.

“It takes a lot more equipment,” Gilla says of dealing with climate change. “You also can’t make as many mistakes.” The challenge for growers, however, is much greater.

“The problem is you can’t pick up a vineyard and move it,” says Figgins. “If you’re not thinking about what your kids are going to be farming there, you’re doing it wrong.”

In the end, despite the increasing challenges, Washington still makes top-quality wine and will surely continue to. However, growers and vintners will likely have to continue to work harder, and there may be even more variation in style from one vintage to the next. There will also be greater differences in quality between producers, based on how well individual wineries adapt.

“Your more experienced teams will continue to make great wines,” says Figgins. “But it’s going to diverge the quality spectrum in any given year.”

Mindful of the adage “chance favors the prepared mind,” Gorski says “The more experience you have, the luckier you get, right?”

12 of the Best Washington State Wines to Try

Quilceda Creek 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $200, Cellar Selection. Aromas of black raspberry, dried herb, cherry, incense, cranberry and spice explode from the glass…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Betz Family 2018 Heart of the Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $120, Cellar Selection. The aromas intrigue, with notes of bay leaf, raspberry compote and cherry, showing dazzling purity. SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Horsepower 2018 Sur Echalas Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $121, Editors’ Choice. The aromas jump from the glass, with laser-focused notes of funk, firepit, peat, black olive tapenade, Stargazer lily, crushed flower and wet rock. SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Figgins 2018 Estate Red (Walla Walla Valley); $85, Cellar Selection. Aromas of macerated cherry, coffee, flower, licorice and date lead to cherry, cranberry and raspberry flavors…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Passing Time 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $85, Cellar Selection. Here, 55% of the fruit comes from Klipsun and 42% from Red Mountain Vineyard, with the rest a pinch of…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

DeLille 2018 Harrison Hill 25th Vintage Red (Snipes Mountain); $105, Cellar Selection. Harrison Hill is always about class ahead of brawn, and this wine brings the former in abundance…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Cadence 2018 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red (Red Mountain); $45, Cellar Selection. This wine, which will be the winery’s last from this vineyard as it focuses on estate wines going forward… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Fall Line 2018 Exhibition Red (Yakima Valley); $25, Editor’s Choice. Merlot (64%) and Cabernet Franc (33%) are the stars here, with Cabernet Sauvignon playing a bit role…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Januik 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $30, Editors’ Choice. The aromas are brooding, with notes of coffee, cherry, vanilla and sweet spices…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

W.T. Vintners 2018 Boushey Mourvèdre (Yakima Valley); $40, Editors’ Choice. This producer always captures the best there is to find from this variety in the state…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Avennia 2019 Arnaut Boushey Vineyard 10th Vintage Syrah (Yakima Valley); $60, Cellar Selection. This is the winery’s 10th vintage from this esteemed vineyard, and it’s glorious. The aromas erupt from the glass, with notes of blueberry, huckleberry…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Devison 2019 Above the Flood Red (Columbia Valley); $54, Editors’ Choice. This is a blend of Grenache (48%), Syrah (34%) and Mourvèdre (18%), coming from top sites that include Yakima Valley stalwart Boushey Vineyard…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW