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Washington’s White Wine Paradox

In Washington’s earliest days as a grape-growing region, the state was thought too cool to successfully ripen many warm-climate red grape varieties. Subsequently, cool-climate white grapes, especially Riesling, dominated production and brought early acclaim.

But as the industry developed, successful cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and others showed that red wines could also excel. This led to increased plantings, so much so that by 2013, for the first time, the majority of Washington’s grape production tilted from white varieties to red. And now, there have been several points over the past 20 years at which the state’s red wines have seemed to overshadow their white wine counterparts in focus and recognition.

Today, 50 years into the state’s development as a wine producer, white bottlings seem both imperiled and ascendant. Some white varieties are being ripped out, while there are also winegrowers exploring new varieties and locations with impressive results. And the exceptional 2017 vintage illustrates just how good the state’s white wines can be.

The White Wine Paradox

Washington has long experienced a white wine paradox. Its white wines don’t typically command as much money or regard as their red counterparts, and it becomes harder for growers and producers to turn a profit.

Because of this, white grapes often don’t receive the same amount of care in the vineyard and winery as reds. The resulting wines can be of high quality, but they’re not necessarily transcendent. They don’t receive as much attention, and they can’t command higher prices.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41. “Small wineries focusing on reds can sell them for fairly substantial price points and make a living at it. The whites are more challenging, particularly if you go above $20.”

While red grape plantings have surged in recent years, white grape plantings have increased at a much more modest pace. Some old-vine varieties, Chenin Blanc in particular, have even been pulled out to plant more profitable offerings.

An increasing number of winemakers are giving renewed focus to white wines.

“We’re fortunate that in the early days of viticulture in Washington State, there were a lot of whites planted,” says Clubb. “If you look at new plantings, it kind of paints a bit of a dire picture.”

Though the state’s larger producers have long championed the category, white wines have often been nearly ignored by Washington’s army of small wineries, which includes some of its most iconic brands.

“If you look at the best producers in the state of Washington, a lot of them aren’t even making white wines,” says Brennon Leighton, director of winemaking and viticulture for the Wines of Substance portfolio, which includes K Vintners, Sixto, B. Leighton Wines and others.

“Whites are far more difficult to make well than reds,” he says. “A lot of young winemakers, which is what Washington has, are more capable of being consistent with the reds and making really good red wine.

“White wines are harder. The more you mess with them, the worse it gets.”

From left to right; DeLille 2017 Chaleur Blanc (Columbia Valley);Alleromb 2017 La Gran Flor Blanc Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley);Gramercy 2017 Viognier (Columbia Valley);Poet’s Leap 2017 Riesling (Columbia Valley);Rôtie Cellars 2017 Southern White (Walla Walla Valley); and Syncline 2017 Boushey Vineyard Picpoul (Yakima Valley)
From left to right; DeLille 2017 Chaleur Blanc (Columbia Valley); Alleromb 2017 La Gran Flor Blanc Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley); Gramercy 2017 Viognier (Columbia Valley); Poet’s Leap 2017 Riesling (Columbia Valley); Rôtie Cellars 2017 Southern White (Walla Walla Valley); and Syncline 2017 Boushey Vineyard Picpoul (Yakima Valley) / Photo by Meg Baggott

Shifting the Paradigm

The calculus may be changing, as an increasing number of winemakers give renewed focus to white wines. While Chardonnay, Riesling and, to a much lesser extent, Sauvignon Blanc, still dominate production, more wineries are experimenting with alternatives.

“There’s a growing group of winemakers who are excited about white winemaking and who are exploring different sites and different varieties,” says James Mantone, co-founder, winemaker and vineyard manager of Syncline Winery.

At Syncline, Mantone focuses largely on traditional white Rhône grapes.

“Looking at all of these other varieties, they offer so much more potential than just Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc that so drive the industry, not just the Washington industry, but the wine industry in general,” he says. “Grenache Blanc is a lot fresher in Washington than it is in a lot of other places.”

Site selection for whites is also improving. Growers seek out higher elevations and northern aspects to gain longer hang time, additional flavor development and increased complexity at lower sugar—and therefore alcohol—levels.

“We’ve been going to higher and higher elevations with really good results, both for reds and whites,” says Leighton. “White grapes need cool nights. The most important part about white wines is retaining acidity. Washington, in general, has those [cooler nights] predominantly at higher elevations.”

Farming has evolved as well. “Ten years ago, whites were farmed pretty much like the reds,” says Mantone. “Now you’re seeing much more intentional farming to shape the white wines in the direction that you want them to go: more cover, less sun exposure, paying attention to crop load.”

These advances have not just increased quality, but they’ve given the state tremendous diversity. More than 30 white varieties are planted, and they produce high-quality examples of everything from Chardonnay to Riesling, Picpoul, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Sémillon and beyond.

“We’re not mature enough yet as a wine industry to always be consistent in what we do [with white wines],” says Leighton. “But you can see the jewels come out, and when they do, they are some of the best white wines in the world.”

DeLille 2017 Chaleur Blanc (Columbia Valley); $35, 94 points. The wine’s aromas are arresting in notes of lemon pith, herb, stone fruit, fig, spice, mineral and citrus. Full-bodied, layered and exquisitely balanced fruit flavors follow with a zing of electric, lemony acidity stitching it all together. The fig- and tropical fruit-filled finish seems near endless. It’s showing beautifully now, but should only get better with some time in the cellar. Best 2020–2025. Cellar Selection.

Gramercy 2017 Viognier (Columbia Valley); $22, 92 points. All of the fruit for this wine comes from Antoine Creek Vineyard, north of the Lake Chelan appellation. Aromas of lemon balm, white peach and honeysuckle are followed by generous but still sleekly styled fruit flavors that show beautiful depth, balance and tension. Lemony acidity heightens the interest. The winery’s best offering of this variety to date. Editors’ Choice.

Alleromb 2017 La Gran Flor Blanc Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley); $48, 92 points.The aromas here are vivid, with notes of pear, pineapple, citrus, melon and herb. The palate explodes with kiwi, papaya and passion fruit flavors that carry on the finish. It’s flat-out delicious, showing a captivating sense of richness and texture as well as a lingering finish.

Poet’s Leap 2017 Riesling (Columbia Valley); $20, 91 points. Generous aromas of lime leaf, citrus, wet slate and white peach lead to off-dry stone-fruit and citrus flavors that stretch out on the palate. It brings a beautiful sense of acid balance with an impressively long finish. Give it some additional time in bottle to see it at its best. Editors’ Choice.

Syncline 2017 Boushey Vineyard Picpoul (Yakima Valley); $25, 91 points. Aromas of lemon pith, citrus rind, wet stone and sweet herb lead to an elegantly styled palate backed by a blast of tart, lemony acidity. It requires food alongside it to be properly appreciated; shellfish should fit the bill. Editors’ Choice.

Rôtie Cellars 2017 Southern White (Walla Walla Valley); $32, 91 points. White wines are an extreme rarity in the valley. This one shows the area’s potential. A blend of Viognier (66%), Roussanne (18%) and Marsanne, the aromas are vibrant in notes of honeysuckle, pear, tangerine and wet stone. The palate is redolent with sleek, lively stone-fruit flavors that show a dazzling sense of purity and linger on the finish. Editors’ Choice.

The Thrilling 2017 Vintage

Washington’s 2017 vintage offers an abundance of jewels. In addition to the winemaking and viticulture advances, unique factors made the year outstanding for white wines.

In contrast to recent years, the growing season started cool. Early wet weather, an anomaly for ever-dry eastern Washington, led to significant canopy growth and mildew pressure in white grapes.

Some believe this benefitted the vintage.

“In order to clean things up, we had to aggressively go in and thin fruit,” says Clubb. “What that did was drop the crop size down a little bit. Quite frankly, I think that led to better quality on what was left.”

Surprisingly, smoke from distant wildfires may have also aided things. While many winemakers avoid the mention of smoke to prevent concerns about potential taint, the conditions appeared to have possibly helped protect the grapes.

“It slowed down ripening a lot,” says Leighton of the smoke that was in the air for stretches in August and September. “There was probably a week or more where we had really hot temperatures forecast, and it just wasn’t that hot. It was, like, a 10- to 15-degree shift, especially at night.”

Many factors have resulted in one of the states best-ever white wine vintages.

When the smoke cleared toward mid-September, moderately warm days and cool nights took root. This slowed sugar accumulation, preserved acidity and pushed back harvest.

“Any time we can pick a little later, it’s always a good thing,” says Mike Januik, winemaker at Novelty Hill and owner/winemaker of Januik Winery. “Even if you can push harvest out seven to 10 days, I think it can make a big difference… you see more aromatically intense wines.”

Together, all of these factors have resulted in one of the state’s best-ever white wine vintages.

“There’s that ripe fruit character, but there’s also an elegance to the balance of the wines and the acid structure,” says David Rosenthal, white winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, the world leader in Riesling production by volume. “There’s also a titch more acidity that brings a sense of freshness.”

“2017 really stood out as a white wine vintage,” says Januik. “I’ve been through 35 of them now, and it would be in my top five.”

From left to right;Woodward Canyon 2017 Chardonnay (Washington); W.T. Vintners 2017 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner (Columbia Gorge); Januik 2017 Sagemoor Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley); K Vintners 2017 Art Den Hoed Vineyard Viognier (Yakima Valley); L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Semillon (Columbia Valley); and Chateau Ste. Michelle 2017 Dry Riesling (Columbia Valley)
From left to right; Woodward Canyon 2017 Chardonnay (Washington); W.T. Vintners 2017 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner (Columbia Gorge); Januik 2017 Sagemoor Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley); K Vintners 2017 Art Den Hoed Vineyard Viognier (Yakima Valley); L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Semillon (Columbia Valley); and Chateau Ste. Michelle 2017 Dry Riesling (Columbia Valley) / Photo by Meg Baggott

A Bright Future

White varieties made up some of Washington’s earliest plantings, yet many believe it’s still early in their development.

“I think that we’re just kind of at the beginning of Washington’s white wine phase, even though we’ve been making Chardonnay and Riesling for a long time,” says Mantone. “On a smaller producer side, things are just getting going. I’m really looking forward to other people being courageous and trying some of these different varieties to see what all we can do.”

“As good as the wines are in Washington, now that we’re getting into this next generation of winemakers and winegrowers, we are really figuring out what grows well and where,” says Rosenthal. “You’re going to see this whole thing kick into another gear in the coming years.”

While Leighton believes the state’s white wines often fly below the radar, he agrees that the best is yet to come.

“We have this incredible opportunity to make world-class white wines, and a lot of it is finding the sites and finding the people to do it,” he says. “As the next generation of winemakers come through, they are going to have a much better understanding of winemaking and how to make Washington white wines, and how to make them great. I think they are going to be some of the best white wines in the world.”

Woodward Canyon 2017 Chardonnay (Washington); $44, 91 points. This wine is equal parts fruit from Celilo and the winery’s Estate vineyard. Seeing a kiss of 20% new oak from Burgundy barrels, the aromas draw you into the glass, with notes of spice, lemon curd, pear, mineral and apple. Sleek, seamless flavors backed by bright, lemony acidity follow. The finish sails into the distance. The balance is exquisite. This one is all about delicacy and restraint but it brings both in abundance. Best from 2020–2025. Cellar Selection.

Januik 2017 Sagemoor Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley); $20, 90 points. Pear, grass, fig, toast and lemon-peel aromas are followed by medium-bodied, textured fig, melon and barrel-spice flavors that persist on the finish. The Sémillon blended in (22%) gives the palate extra weight and depth. Editors’ Choice.

W.T. Vintners 2017 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner (Columbia Gorge); $23, 90 points. One of the few bottlings of this variety in the state, this brings spicy herb, white peach, citrus rind and white pepper aromas. The flavors are light, sleek and acid-driven, with a drawn-out finish. It provides a lot of appeal and versatility at the table.

L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Semillon (Columbia Valley); $15, 90 points. Aromas of fig and spice carry the nose of this lush white. The palate brings a lovely sense of texture, with notes of honeycomb, fig and tropical fruit. A warm finish caps it off. Like most examples of this variety, it needs time in the bottle to be fully appreciated, but it has all the stuffing. Best after 2019. Best Buy.

K Vintners 2017 Art Den Hoed Vineyard Viognier (Yakima Valley); $25, 90 points. Fruit for this wine comes from a vineyard at 1,300 feet of elevation—high for the state. All aged in neutral French oak, the wine has aromas that bring notes of ripe peach, apricot and flower. Full-bodied, well-structured stone fruit and creamsicle flavors follow. There’s much to enjoy.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2017 Dry Riesling (Columbia Valley); $9, 89 points. The bouquet of this wine pops with aromas of rubbed lime leaf, citrus, white peach and cut green apple. Sleek and bone dry, a lemon iced tea flavor follows and leads into a sailing finish. This is always one of the best wine values on the shelf, and this vintage does not disappoint. Best Buy.

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