In Washington the state wines are coming of age

VINTAGE POINT

August 16, 1992|By MICHAEL DRESSER

SEATTLE — Seattle--Washington is the New Frontier of American winemaking.

Not "Washington state." That's what those folks back in "the other Washington" call the northwestern corner of the continental United States. Here it's just plain Washington, but there's nothing plain about its wines.

By now it's not news that good wines are made in Washington. The wines of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia and Columbia Crest have been distributed nationwide for more than a decade, and they consistently offer good value for the money.

It takes a visit to this state, however, to discover how far Washington has come in 25 years of serious winemaking. Many of its best wines are rarely seen outside the Pacific Northwest. In some cases, their quality is as astonishing as the apparition of Mount Ranier looming over Seattle on a clear day.

The names Woodward Canyon, Leonetti and Quilceda Creek have achieved some fame in the wine press, though few connoisseurs from outside the Pacific Northwest had much chance to taste them.

But there's also Hyatt, Hedges, Chinook and Facelli. There's Cavatappi, Andrew Will and Gordon Brothers. Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of them. I hadn't either until I came to Seattle.

Ah, Seattle.

This gentle, sophisticated city on the shores of Puget Sound now ranks second only to San Francisco as an urban destination for the wine-loving traveler in the United States.

It is a city surrounded by wineries, many no farther than a half-hour's drive, but the vineyards nearby are few and insignificant. Seattle's reputation for rain is deserved, unfortunately, and few high-quality grapes will tolerate such a climate.

The vast majority of Washington's vines are grown on the dry eastern side of the cloud-squeezing Cascades. They inhabit the irrigated valleys of the Columbia, the Yakima, the Snake and the Walla Walla Rivers.

The vineyards that line those rivers are increasingly planted in varieties of the highest quality. A survey by the Washington Wine Commission found 10,902 acres of fine European (vinifera) wine grapes planted in the state, with the fastest growth among merlot, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon vines.

Once overwhelmingly planted to white wine varieties, Washington's vineyards are becoming redder with each passing year. Red wine grapes now account for one-third of the state's vineyard acreage. The plantings of merlot, a Bordeaux varietal -- that has had extraordinary success in Washington, have more than doubled since 1988.

Certainly if you were to taste the incredible 1989 Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve Red, the cabernet sauvignons of Woodward Canyon or Quilceda Creek or the merlots of Chinook and Hyatt, you would conclude that Washington's future lies with red wine. These are wines of world-class quality, capable of holding their own against the best of California or France.

It's not that simple, however. Washington is making extraordinary white wines as well. Woodward Canyon's chardonnays are among the very best in the United States, and Chateau Ste. Michelle is no more than a half-step behind. The state's rieslings, ranging from bone-dry to ultra-sweet, are consistently superior to California's.

And then there are the semillons. In Washington, this under-appreciated Bordeaux variety produces some of the most profound, long-lived white wines made anywhere in the world.

A dry 1975 Chateau St. Michelle Semillon, served at the winery, was a complex, golden wine -- full of honey and spice flavors -- that lingered on the palate for what seemed like an eon. At an age when most chardonnays are decrepit, it could not have been more lively.

That wine, naturally, is not available to the public any more, but those who are willing to invest in the future can do so relatively inexpensively. Chateau Ste. Michelle's 1990 Columbia Valley Semillon is an infant version of the 1975, and it will likely cost no more than $10 a bottle. The only problem will be to resist drinking it all now.

It's no surprise that Bordeaux-style wines such as semillon and merlot would fare well in Washington. As the state's vintners and publicists are fond of pointing out, its growing regions lie along the same parallel as Bordeaux.

Still, Washingtonians take that parallel too far. The cool nights in its river valleys do give the state's wine more crisp acidity that you generally find in California wines, but in general the flavors of the reds more closely resemble Napa Valley wines than Bordeaux. Many of the best cabernets have just as much chocolate and coffee flavor as any wine from Calistoga.

In fact, Washington's wine country is neither the next Bordeaux nor a California clone. Its wine-growing regions are works in progress, and even veteran Washington winemakers are only beginning to grasp the possibilities.

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