The rise of Washington State7th March, 2014 by Alex Down
When brothers Jeff and Bill Gordon planted their first vineyards in Washington’s Columbia Valley back in 1980, there were just 19 wineries in the State and 5,000 acres of vines planted.
So, what was it that drove Gordon Estate and wineries like them to plant vines in Washington’s largely unchartered territory? And, why has its wine industry exploded at such as rapid rate over the last 30 years?
There is no single answer as to this question but, undoubtedly, one of the critical factors lies in Washington’s location and geography.
Washington State is located in America’s Pacific Northwest, immediately to the north of Oregon. It is positioned on the 46°N parallel (incidentally the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy) which allows its vineyards benefit from up to 17 hours of sunshine every day during the growing season. This is two hours more than its sunny Californian cousin to the south!
Another factor that is fundamental to the success of Washington’s wine industry is the existence of the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades divide the State from east to west. The eastern side is characterised by a hot, dry, desert-like Continental climate due to the mountains acting as a rain barrier, blocking precipitation moving east from the Pacific Ocean. It is here that the vast majority of Washington’s vineyards are situated. To give you an idea of the dry conditions, the Columbia Valley – home to Gordon Estate winery – gets on average only 8 inches of rain per year!
But, geography aside, the vintners in Washington have also been smart in their choice of grape varieties. The arid conditions conditions suit varieties that ripen late and lend themselves to a fuller bodied style of wine. It is no surprise therefore that the State’s most planted grapes include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
The one anomaly to this is Riesling. Washington is, in fact, not only the largest producer of Riesling in the US but Riesling is the most planted grape variety in the State. The key reason why Riesling seems to flourish in Washington is the substantial changes of temperature between night and day. This allows producers of Riesling to achieve optimal ripeness whilst maintaining the grape’s identifiable trademark – acidity!
For this reason, you can find Riesling produced in a range of styles – from bone dry to super sweet – with impressive balance between sweetness and acidity.
For me, Washington State provides the UK wine trade with the perfect opportunity to show the public that there is more to American wine than California. Oregon is starting to get a foothold in the UK and I do not think it will be long before Washington follows suit. I accept that these wines may remain niche for a while to come but for independents and restaurants that are looking to inject imagination into their wine lists, Washington State will certainly become a viable option.
For people interested in getting to know these wines, head down to the “Go West” tasting on Monday 17th March at London’s Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in London. For the first time, wines from Washington (and its sister State, Oregon) will join those from California at the annual tasting.
Not only does this demonstrate the growing importance of the Pacific Northwest as a wine region but it will also be a fantastic showcase for Washington’s wines.