By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 14 January 2023
We don’t get many Washington State wines on our UK shelves. Despite being the second largest US wine producer after California with over 1000 wineries, Washington State seems under-represented here.
With a burgeoning local market in Seattle, there is plenty of demand back home for this young thriving wine industry, which first began in 1950s and 1960s – similar to neighbour Oregon – but strangely Oregon is better known over here.
Now enterprising UK retailer Ally Wines have started importing some of Washington State’s best wines from small independent wineries. It is several years since I last tasted Washington State’s wines and I was impressed by the quality, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah which have progressed in the last decade as winemakers focus on different areas within the state.
There is a diverse mix of climate, soil and grapes – as our tasting showed. Many regions within Columbia Valley from Yakima Valley to Red Mountain are on a latitude between Burgundy, Rhone and Bordeaux, resulting in New World bold flavours with Old World finesse and fresh acidity all in one wine.
One of the most interesting areas of the state is the remote easterly Walla Walla region, second largest after Yakima Valley, framed by the Blue Mountains once better known for sweet onions, apples and asparagus – now its microclimates from drier west to cooler wetter east are proving ideal for Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
What was interesting about the four Washington State wineries I tasted – each one had been started by a winemaker who began his career outside the wine industry.
Matt Austin (pictured above with wife Kelly) of Grosgrain Vineyards trained as a lawyer before switching to winemaking after visiting Santa Barbara wineries in California. He worked for four years in different wineries, before setting up in Walla Walla where he specialises in unusual varieties from Albarino, Semillon, Grenache to Lemberger – focusing on sparkling and white wine which suits the higher elevation area. “I was attracted to this area as there is a certain energy and great collaborative atmosphere for newcomers”, says Austin.
Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars is also based in Walla Walla, but also buys in fruit from surrounding areas. Greg was based in Manhatten working as a Master Sommelier in leading restaurants across US – but was tempted to switch sides to become a winemaker after an inspiring visit to Walla Walla.
“I was invited to a tasting in Walla Walla – nearly did not go – but by chance I did and it changed my life as I fell in love with the area. It is remote, four hours from major cities, but a great place to make wine”, says Harrington, who specialised in old Rhone and Bordeaux-style wines since his first harvest in 2005.
Boeing-engineer Ben Smith (pictured above) used to specialise in flight control systems, but after trying his hand at home brewing and joining Boeing Wine Club, he switched careers. He set up Cadence, an urban winery in Seattle, and bought a vineyard 200 miles east in the sweeping landscape of Red Mountain with cobbles, clay and basalt soils ideal for Cabernet Franc.
Like Californian wines, prices for Washington State wines can be high – but for a good introduction at reasonable prices, try House of Smith. Charles Smith used to be a rock band manager, who became inspired by wine during a road trip in 1999. Today he makes numerous brands: Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2020 and Velvet Devil Merlot 2018 are both £16.99 at Virgin Wines.
Walla Walla, Washington State: OLD VINE LEMBERGER PET NAT 2021 Grosgrain Vineyards
£27 Ally Wines UK
Lovely depth of flavour, strawberry & cherry notes, cidery hints with minerally undertone, clear style as it has been disgorged – and a fun label. Low intervention ancestrale method fizz is from Washington State’s first Lemberg plantings in Kiona vineyard,
Walla Walla, Washington State: ALBARINO 2021 Grosgrain Vineyards
£26.50 Ally Wines UK
Spicy rich textured zesty citric example of this Spanish classic grape – part fermented in concrete egg, barrel and stainless steel; from Philips vineyard in Walla Walla. Albarino can show good varietal expression here.
Columbia Valley, Washington State: KUNG FU GIRL RIESLING 2020 House of Smith
£16.99 Virgin Wines
Upfront fruit with apricot and mango dominant with vibrant zippy acidity, off-dry palate and rich texture – shows how well Riesling grows here; match with Thai fishcakes.
Red Mountain, Washington State: BEL CANTO CARA MIA 2017 Cadence ***STAR BUY***
£55 Ally Wines UK
Stylish blend of 73% Cabernet Franc, 18% Merlot and 9% Petit Verdot from Cara Mia vineyard 200 miles east of Seattle in Red Mountain; aged in 50% new French oak. Plummy spicy undertones with savoury freshness from the dominance of Cabernet Franc.
Columbia Valley, Washington State: LOWER EAST COLUMBIA VALLEY SYRAH 2018 Gramercy Cellars
£28 Wine at Heart UK; Hedonism Wines
Impressive meaty savoury mature Rhone-like Syrah with white pepper and raspberry notes and smooth tannins, elegant with exceptional layered palate from Master Sommelier Greg Harrington.
Columbia Valley, Washington State: COLUMBIA VALLEY CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016 Gramercy Cellars ***STAR BUY***
Inspired by old Bordeaux and Napa Cabernets, Harrington created this superb blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Petit Verdot. Blackberries, damson fruits, cedary undertones, supple texture and long finish; a blend of Phinny Hill gives structure, White Bluffs gives power and Gramercy’s own Walla Walla estate fruit adds freshness.
Join Rose’s Up and Coming Producers Wine Tasting on Thursday 2 March in Edinburgh www.rosemurraybrown.com