Washington State Wine – A rich history and a bright future
When you think about American wine it is hard not to be drawn to the wine making behemoth of California particularly within Napa and Sonoma County. With over 130 AVAs spread across 242,000 hectares of vineyard, California is an undeniably massive part of the global wine market let alone the US. However, there is more to American wine if not in quantity but certainly in quality. Beyond the borders of California - excellent wine awaits.
Head north of California, be sure to stop in Oregon for some incredible small-batch wines, and you will eventually arrive in Washington State. Here you will find over 1,000 wineries across 16 AVAs and 400 growers producing 201,000 tons of grapes a year - everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to Chenin Blanc and Sangiovese. Washington State is the second biggest wine producer after California but what sets it apart from many wine regions around the world is its depth of quality. 90% of Washington States wineries are small family run businesses making fewer than 5,000 cases, these are micro-productions that lack quantity but deliver in quality. Washington is huge and the growing conditions are perfect for wine – so while the region has no intention of producing huge volumes of low-quality wine there is so much opportunity for growth and as a result Washington wine is one of the most exciting prospects for the future. The trend is clear 45% of Washington wines in Wine Spectator scored 90+ points compared to 36% from California. Yet the average price for those wines was $48 for Washington compared with $77 in California. Washington is producing small-batch world-class wine at a price well below the wines it is directly competing with on quality.
What is the secret behind Washington State wine?
The secret behind exceptional wine is simple.... people and place
46-degree parallel: Washington is lucky to lie on the 46-degree latitude line this is widely seen as the sweet spot for grape growing. This latitude runs just north of the Rhone and just south of Burgundy, also cutting through northern Italy. Due to this position the state averages 17-hours of sunlight during the growing season but the night times are cool. This creates what is called a large diurnal range (temperature variation between day and night) – prime for cultivating grapes with excellent fruit development while retaining freshness and acidity. The relatively high latitude and pacific coast influence creates distinct seasons with cold winters. This means that there is relatively low disease and pest pressures, this allows vineyards to be sustainable and organic avoiding the use of chemicals.
Rain shadow effect: Columbia Valley and the majority of Washington’s AVAs lie to the east of both the Olympics and Cascades Mountain ranges this creates a protective barrier between the wet weather from the pacific – thus creating a rain shadow in Washington wine country.
Complex soil types: The soil composition of the Pacific Northwest is unique and well suited to viniculture. Volcanic lava flows and glacial floods have laced the soils with a rich deposit of minerals, seen as beneficial to growing grapes of quality and complexity. The dominant Loess soil is porous and well-draining which prevents dilution of the grape flavours during ripening.
The people: Washington State is massive and there is plenty of space to grow, one of the biggest challenges is the distance between vineyards, so wine growers and vintners must work in collaboration and they do to great success. The industry is still relatively young but the diversity of those involved in the industry is one of Washington’s greatest assets. On average four new wineries open a month and the quality remains exceptional.
Over the month of July Roberson has been running a US focused campaign: ‘New American Classics’. This has been a celebration of wines that have helped define the US wine scene and in doing so have become ‘classics’ of the industry. Washington winemakers don't conform to tradition, they are often from backgrounds outside of wine, they are artists, dreamers and lovers of wine, who enter the industry experimenting, they are bold and creative, acting in the here and now in an attempt to create something truly remarkable. These are the very ingredients that inspire those moments, those experiments and passion projects that just might revolutionise an industry and in-doing so may, one day, become the 'New American Classics'.
There is no doubting the contribution Washington wine makes to the US wine industry. We are proud to support the likes of Hedges as their importer in the UK, and in recognition of the contribution Washington wine has made and will continue to make, we have put together a Washington Wine Collection. They encapsulate the Washington wine scene, they’re individual, high in quality, some rich in history, others new and bursting with exciting potential, many are family owned and all have a bright future.