This report focuses on the 2015s from Washington State, which is another terrific vintage for the region. Washington has been on an undeniable roll since 2012, and these newly released 2015s, and upcoming 2016s, aren’t going to break the trend.
The 2015 Vintage
The 2015 Vintage was early and hot, and it’s one of the hottest growing seasons on record. To put it in perspective, the average Growing Degree Days (GDD) for the Columbia Valley is 2,628. In 2015, the Columbia Valley accumulated 3,157 GDDs, with Red Mountain (one of the hottest AVAs) seeing north of 3,900.
However, Washington can handle heat and vintages are characterized more by when/how the heat is accumulated over the growing season. In the case of 2015, the season got off to an incredibly early start before being consistently hot going into the summer. Multiple heat spikes in June and July caused vines to shut down, and growers had to battle the balance between sugars and phenolic ripeness going into harvest. A cooler, more normal end to the season allowed the phenolics to catch up, but harvest and vinification decisions were critical in getting ripe tannins in the wines.
The wines have beautiful purity of fruit yet are slightly more firm and classically styled compared to the more broad and voluptuous 2012s and 2014s. I think the phenolics lag what was achieved in 2014 (and 2012) and the wines have slightly less density and mid-palate depth, with an equal amount of tannin. Nevertheless, the top wines shine for their purity of fruit, balance, and length.
I gave the nod to the Rhône varieties last year when I tasted these wines from barrel, but from bottle, the Bordeaux blends showed beautifully as well. It’s a strong vintage for both Rhône and Bordeaux varieties. I compared the vintage to a hypothetical mix of 2013 and 2014 last year, and that comparison holds today.
In short, 2015 is another terrific vintage for Washington State that has yielded ripe, yet also pure and focused wines that will benefit from short-term cellaring.
The 2014 Vintage
Before 2015, 2014 was the latest “hottest vintage to date” and came in even above what the region saw in 2013, which was another record breaker. However, where 2013 and 2015 saw more heat spikes, the heat in 2014 was even and consistent, and growers and winemakers were able to handle the heat beautifully.
The vintage kicked off with an extremely dry winter and spring with flowering occurring under ideal conditions resulting in an even, large crop (which helped with the heat during the summer). Summer was consistently hot and even, with no notable weather events, and harvest was rushed and short, with most grape varieties ripening at the same time.
Looking at the wines, these are ripe, plush, sexy wines that still hold onto a terrific sense of purity and freshness. While they’re not as concentrated or opulent as the 2012s, they have what should be treasured by the true wine lovers (and drinkers)—upfront charm, beautiful drinkability, and impeccable balance.
In short, 2014 is another terrific vintage for Washington and only slightly behind 2012, 2010, and 2007, yet a step up over 2015, 2013, and 2011.
The 2013 Vintage
Like 2015, as well as 2005 and 2003, the 2013 vintage was a scorcher that broke heat records (at the time). The season started off roughly a week ahead of average with a large, even crop load. This was followed by scorching temperatures in July through September, with harvest wrapping up for most by late September and early October. Berry sizes were tiny, the grape skins were thick, and these are concentrated, focused, classic wines that remind me of the 2015s. The majority of these have shed their baby fat and a touch of their tannin, and are drinking nicely today, but should be long-lived.
The 2012 Vintage
The greatest vintage in the past decade (it’s on par with 2007 and 2002), 2012 was a sensational vintage for Washington State that featured a long, even, consistent growing season followed by an Indian Sumer allowing harvest to stretch into late October. I commented on release that a number of estates had made their best wines to date, and that still holds true today. The wines are still youthful, yet their beautiful purity and depth of fruit have them drinking well. The 2007s and 2002s are still going strong today for the top wines and I expect the same evolution for the 2012s.
The 2011 Vintage
Breaking the trend, the 2011 Vintage was the coolest vintage since 1993. With bud break 2-3 weeks behind average and a cool, moderate summer, growers left the grapes on the vine as long as possible (this was helped by a beautiful Indian Summer), but there were plenty of unripe grapes left on the vine when all was said and done. Nevertheless, there were some beautiful wines made, partially from Syrah which thrived in the cooler temperatures. Quality is less consistent, but the top wines are still youthful today.
For additional comparisons, here are the Growing Degree Days for the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which is a cooler region, from 2012 through 2009:
2012 GDD = 2891 heat units
2011 GDD = 2605 heat units
2010 GDD = 2699 heat units
2009 GDD = 3129 heat units
If you want to truly understand Washington Wine, you need to understand the different growing regions. I describe the main American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) below, as well as do my best to list where the wines come from in the reviews in this report.
Columbia Valley AVA
Starting just east of the Cascade Mountain Range and covering most of Central and Southern Washington, the Columbia Valley AVA is the largest AVA in the state and can be thought up as a catch-all. This is one AVA that tells you very little about the wine and is often used when winemakers blend grapes from multiple smaller AVAs.
Yakima Valley AVA
Located in the Columbia Valley AVA, as well as the first Washington State AVA created, the Yakima Valley AVA is the third largest AVA in the state. In the western portion of the Columbia Valley, this cooler region warms substantially as you move east, away from the Cascade Mountains. Notable vineyards here include Mike Sauer’s Red Willow Vineyard, Scott Greer’s Sheridan Vineyard, and Andrew Will’s Two Blondes Vineyard. The wines from this AVA tend to hold onto their acidity and have complex, cool climate characters.
Rattlesnake Hills AVA
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA is located on the northeastern edge of the Yakima Valley and covers a range of mostly south facing, east to west running slopes that lie between 850 feet to upwards of 3,000 feet above sea-level at its highest point. This is a warmer region that’s not too dissimilar from Red Mountain (it’s slightly cooler), with Cote Bonneville’s DuBrul Vineyard being the most noteworthy.
Snipes Mountain AVA
A tiny, relatively new AVA that was created in 2009, Snipes Mountain AVA covers a unique, seven-mile stretch of rocky, basalt, and gravely soils located between 750 and 1,310 feet above sea level. The most notable vineyards include Harrison Hill Vineyard (which is used by Delille Cellars for their Harrison Hill Bordeaux blend) and Todd Newhouse’s Upland Vineyard.
Red Mountain AVA
Located just outside the town of Benton City, Red Mountain AVA covers roughly 4,000 acres all located on a south, southwest facing hillside that runs from roughly 500 feet at its base to upwards of 1,500 feet above sea level at its highest point. This is a hot, windswept region that produces some of the most tannic, concentrated, and mineral-laced wines in the State. Some of the top wines in the State come from this appellation and notable vineyards include Ciel du Cheval (which often produces the most elegant wines of the AVA), Klipsun, Kiona, Force Majeure, Upchurch, Galitzine, and Tapteil, to name just a few.
Wahluke Slope AVA
Including 8,490 acres of vineyards, the Wahluke Slope AVA lies to the north of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA and is a hot, south-facing slope of primarily sandy, gravelly soils. This is one of the warmest AVAs in the state, yet the sandy soils result in a distinct, exotic, gamey style of wine. The most notable producer here is Charles Smith, with notable vineyards including Clifton, Pheasant, Sundance, and Weinbau.
Horse Heaven Hills AVA
A cooler AVA located in the southern portion of the Columbia Valley AVA, on the northern edge of the Columbia River, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA covers a whopping 570,000 acres, with over 11,000 acres under vine. This AVA produces a massive amount of grapes (Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle pull heavily from this region) but has some true superstar vineyards, including Champoux, Phinny Hill, Palengat, and The Benches. This region benefits from its proximity to the Columbia River, as well as strong winds due to the Columbia Gorge.
Walla Walla Valley AVA
One of the most well-known AVAs in the State, the Walla Walla Valley AVA is centered around the town of Walla Walla (it stretches into Oregon) and consists of a number of unique terroirs and mesoclimates. The most notable region, and one that received its own sub-appellation just recently, The Rocks (the official name is “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater”) region is located in the southern part of the Walla Walla Valley, around the town of Milton-Freewater, in Oregon. It covers a unique alluvial fan of rocky, pebbly soils not too dissimilar from what can be found in France’s Châteauneuf du Pape region. This incredible terroir produces an exotic, perfumed and textured style of wine that’s one of the most unique – and identifiable – in the world. Top vineyards include Christophe Baron’s Cayuse Vineyards (Armada, En Cerise, etc.), Reynvaan’s The Rocks, SJR, and a handful of others. Looking outside the Rocks region, the soil is primarily Loess and differences in terroirs are driven by location (the further east towards the Blue Mountains, the more rainfall) and elevation. Top vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley include Pepper Bridge, Les Collines, Seven Hills, AMaurice, and Leonetti’s Loess Vineyard.
All the wines for this report were tasted between February 2018 and March 2018, in larger appellation tastings, domaine visits, and tastings at my office in Colorado.
*Banner image courtesy of Trey Busch