Posted on | November 24, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
Washington State hitting stride with blended reds at all price points
In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon seems to have its vinous identity worked out (Pinot Noir, anyone?), but Washington has yet to decide on a calling card. “Washington has always had an identity crisis,” says Justin Neufeld, winemaker at Gilbert Cellars. “We’ve never been associated with any one varietal or style like California has. People thought Washington’s varietal might be Riesling, then it was Merlot,
then it was Syrah.”
Of course, there’s always the chance that “Washington’s varietal” might not be a varietal at all; red blends are more common in Washington than in any other state, and include many of the state’s most highly regarded wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the two most planted red varieties in Washington, making up more than 18,000 acres of plantings, so it’s no surprise that Bordeaux-style blends dominate the category. Chris Camarda, winemaker at Andrew Will, says he was experimenting with blends from the beginning: “I was making some blends for the heck of it. Once we got Cabernet Franc available it changed everything; it really completed the blends. Cabernet Franc and Merlot are easier to grow in Washington than in California.” Andrew Will produces four blends: Sorella, Two Blondes, Champoux and Ciel du Cheval.
Site Over Variety
For Camarda, the vineyard sites are more important than the details of the blend; blending is the result of terroir. Justin Neufeld finds himself moving in that direction as well. “My approach to blends has become less about the wines and more about the sites, if that makes sense,” says Neufeld. “I think one of Washington’s greatest strengths is how diverse our terroir can be, which, ironically, I think has also been our biggest weakness in regards to building our stylistic identity as a region.”
But the advantage to winemaking is worth it. “Blending provides an opportunity to create a more complex and balanced wine,” says Neufeld. “While a vineyard-designate varietal wine might have a lot of character, many times they are ‘simpler.’” And they are no more difficult to market. “Blends, perhaps, offer a few more creative options that a varietal wine might not,” he adds. “Many wineries create proprietary names for their blends. Rather than calling it a GSM or Cab-Merlot, you see names that capture your attention and have a story behind them, beyond just the wine. They engage the consumer a bit more.”
If blending seems like a more European approach, some find these Washington wines lean that direction in style, too. Camarda says they’re “more European, more restrained than in California,” while Neufeld is less sure. “Washington wines seem more fruit-driven, with a viscous almost sweet texture versus Old World wines that seem to have more earthy mineral notes with a drier palate.” It often comes down to the individual producer.
On the floor, Sommelier Julian Mayor at Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC’s Four Seasons says that the wines may show some restraint and be less overtly “New World,” but that’s still his starting point when it comes to selling them. “They’re more New World overall, enough so that we usually compare them to Napa rather than to Bordeaux,” says Mayor. That’s also where his clientele are coming from: “Washington is a Cabernet town.”
Relaying The Message
With guests who generally order by varietal, Mayor finds Washington blends are “typically a hand-sell.” To make the wines more accessible he lists the Bordeaux-style blends in the Cabernet section; “You can end up with a ‘blend ghetto’ when you have a section of blended wines.” He says guests will overlook a section of blended wines, but are receptive when the sommelier informs them that a wine is a blend. He often directs diners to Washington blends when they’re looking for big Napa wines but want something a little more affordable.
Many are priced well enough to make good by-the-glass options. “Washington blends are able to provide a lot of variety in terms of price. We offered one at $20 glass, but at times they’re even more affordable—$10 or $12 a glass,” says Mayor. The Efeste Final-Final is doing very well for us, and did very well by the glass.” The Final-Final isn’t even a traditional blend, but rather combines Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
In Seattle, it seems like diners aren’t any more clued in to blending than in D.C. “Consumers are still figuring out what a blend means,” says Jackson Rohrbaugh, assistant wine director at Canlis in Seattle. “Cab has more recognition and cachet, but they don’t understand or realize that there might be up to 15% Merlot in their Cab. Many varietal wines are actually blends.”
He often leads guests to Washington blends when what they say they like and what they ask for seem to be at odds. “I really try to listen to what sort of flavor profile they’re looking for,” says Rohrbaugh. “What they think they want and what they’re describing often two different things. They say ‘soft fruit, with a little bit of oak,’ then say they want a Cab, or ask for ‘a Merlot, with a lot of grip and tannins.’”
Beyond Bordeaux-style blends, Rohrbaugh sees a growing interest in Syrah blends in Washington, including unconventional blends like the Efeste or Rhône-like Grenache-Syrah blends such as those of Gramercy Cellars and Betz. “What’s interesting is there’s a lot of Syrah planted, but not a lot of Grenache yet,” says Rohrbaugh. “We’ll start to see more Rhône blends as Grenache gets planted. A lot of producers planting bush-vine Grenache as water issues become more intense. Dry-farmed Grenache makes a lot of sense as a way forward” (Bush vines typically require less water than trellised). He’s also excited about Mourvedre, and a pending AVA in the Columbia Valley—actually on the Oregon side of the border—called “The Rocks,” that he compares to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in its conditions and soils.
So the future Washington identity remains in flux, blended or not. Rohrbaugh explains, “People are still learning what Washington red blend works best. It’s the Wild West. We’ve seen explosive growth, but how much practice have we really had?”
Another sign that the book on Washington State blends is just beginning to be written: new investment. Consider Mullan Road Cellars, a project of Dennis Cakebread, now being sold in Kobrand’s national portfolio. Mullan Road Cellars focuses on “small-production, age-worthy Bordeaux-style red blends,” says Cakebread. The wine is Kobrand’s first from Washington State; the inaugural release is a $45 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Columbia Valley.