Brimming with a pioneer spirit, Washington state is not just host to some of our country’s biggest success stories like Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and Costco, it has actually become America’s second largest wine producer, after California! Doubling in the last 10 years from 450 in 2006 to over 900 today, it boasts an exploding number of wineries. On top of that, out of Washington’s 900 wineries, nearly 850 are small, and family owned.
Presently, the state has more than 50,000 acres of vines spread out across its diverse landscapes from evergreen forests in the west to sagebrush desert in the east where a particular mixture of soils contribute to making Washington wine truly unique.
With the exception of two (Puget Sound and Columbia Gorge), all of the AVAs of Washington state are actually sub-AVAs of the larger Columbia Valley. This valley is the center of a soil base of basalt bedrock. On top of this base are the soils of the Missoula Floods, a series of 30 cataclysmic floods occurring after the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago. After the damn of the glacial lake covering parts of Montana and Canada broke, it sent huge rivers of water rushing from Western Montana, across the state and out to the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It brought with it granite and well-drained, clay-poor soils. On top of the Missoula Floods layer are loess and wind deposits that have been scattered and blown over the landscape for years. These vary from four to 50 feet deep in places.
In the eastern part of the state, where almost all of its AVAs are located (14 total in the Washington), this windy and rolling landscape has a dry and arid climate; this combined with the soils make the area inhospitable to phylloxera, an aphid-like insect that feeds on grapevine roots. This extraordinary set of climate and soil conditions means that vine grafting is not needed and virtually all of the state’s vines grow on their own rootstocks, which some would argue makes a more authentic wine.
While the state produces wine from well over 40 varieties, it particularly excels in making fantastic wines from Cabernet Sauvingon, Merlot, and Syrah for reds and Riesling and Chardonnay for whites. Here are some of our favorites, which we find to all express the spirit of Washington wine!
The 2013 Figgins Estate Red is a truly remarkable blend. Consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot, it shows a pretty mix of aromas of cocoa powder, forest floor, and red cherry. A full and ripe palate brimming with black fruit, which leads to a long, fine-grained finish. This is a special one that will lie down in the cellar for a few years!
One of the most famous and arguably the best Cabernet vineyards in the state, the Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills, turns out some of the most supple and well-balanced reds. Januik Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon shows exotic aromas of dried flowers and florest floor. The palate explodes with black and red berries; the finish is full of sweet, velveteen tannins.
Syrah absolutely flourishes in many of Washington’s AVAs. Gramercy Cellars 2013 The Deuce Syrah is a benchmark Washington Syrah and will remind avid Syrah lovers of Northern Rhone. The Syrah grapes come from three vineyards in Walla Walla: Les Collines, Forgotten Hills, and Old Stones. Aromas of violets, olives, and white pepper balance the savory flavors and stony, mineral texture.
Eroica 2015 Riesling offers an amazing balance of ripe citrus fruit, intriguing floral notes, and a mouth-watering acidity typical of Washington Riesling.
The Abeja Chardonnay gives pleasant aromas of white flowers and pear. On the palate its unctuous texture is balanced by a refreshing acidity. Flavors of lemon chiffon and nectarine come to mind.
To search out more Washington wines to try, follow this link.
As wine consumers, we have learned to ask a lot of questions about what we are drinking. What exactly is in this bottle? Are pesticides or herbicides sprayed on the grapes used to make this wine? Is anything added into the wine in the winery? Are any organisms or the environment harmed to make this? The laws that govern sustainable wine growing and processing can actually be quite tricky. We need to understand how to ask our questions before we can understand the answers.
What is sustainable farming?
Wine Spectator gives a thorough definition of sustainable as it relates to the production of wine.
“Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. (Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.) Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.”
The sustainable label is useful; it tells the consumer which wines are made with ecological, economical, and social principles in mind. Its limitation is that it is locally defined and therefore varies regionally.
What is organic wine?
“Organic” is a system of farming and food processing, as well as a label. In the USA, organic is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). These entities ensure uniform and reliable standards.
By definition, organic farming and food processing integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are not allowed. Products from outside of the cycle are used minimally.
1 – wine made from organic grapes with the addition of sulfites during the winemaking process. Sulfites are allowed in small amounts (less than 100 mg/L (ppm)); this wine cannot be labeled as “organic” but can mention the use of organic grapes.
2 – wine made from organic grapes with no added sulfites. This wine can be labeled as “organic.”
But is 100 mg/L a lot? And does no “added” sulfites mean that there are no sulfites at all in the finished wine? To give perspective on these numbers, understand that natural yeasts, which are present on healthy grape skins, produce trace amounts of sulfites, usually around 15mg/L and often up to 20mg/L. Since 1988, in the USA, all wines containing more than 10mg/L must state, “contains sulfites” on the label. That means that just about every wine produced and imported—whether it be organic, made with organic grapes, or conventionally produced—will say this, which doesn’t help the consumer much.
If you are sulfite sensitive, or the levels are of concern to you, it is important to realize the limits behind the labels. In the USA, these apply to all wine produced, as well as imported.
By law the USA allows sulfite levels of up to 350 mg/L in any conventionally produced finished wine. Finished wine made from organically produced grapes is allowed to contain only up to 100 mg/L of sulfites. Wine labeled as organic cannot have any added sulfites, though it still may have a small amount since they occur naturally (probably 10-20 mg/L).
There are also about 70 groups of products allowed as additions (and not required to be listed on labels) in the conventional wine making process in the USA, Europe Union (EU), Australia, and Japan. But these products are restricted from organic wines according to the National List.
Two issues further complicate the organic label. For one, any foreign company who is exporting wines to the USA for selling and marketing as organic wine, must comply with the USA standards. However, the EU and other wine producing countries have different laws and standards than we have in the USA on the quantity of allowable sulfites in finished organic wines.
In the EU, allowable sulfite levels depend on the type of wine being made. In organic wine, sulfite levels must be at least 30-50 mg/L lower than their conventional equivalent. The EU allows only 150 mg/L of sulfites in finished conventional red wines, which means that red wine labeled as organic in the EU is allowed to have about 100 mg/L of sulfites in the finished product. For conventional white wines in the EU, 200 mg/L is the sulfite limit; 150 mg/L is the limit for organic white wines. For conventional sweet wines, the legal limit in the EU is a sulfite level of 450 mg/L and for organic sweet wines that level depends on the sugar levels in the finished wine.
In the USA, any wine labeled as organic is not allowed to have any added sulfites, resulting in usually less than 20 mg/L. While the USA certainly requires a lower level of sulfites in its organic wines compared to the EU, remember that we also allow a much higher level of sulfites in our conventional table wines. The EU also does not have a distinct category for wines made only from organically grown grapes like we have in the USA.
The second issue that complicates the understanding of organic wines is the non-labeling of some wines that are indeed organic, or nearly organic. Some of these are neither certified nor labeled as such because many producers—whether in the USA or abroad—do not want to deal with the bureaucracy or fees associated with the certification process. If the producer exports to the US, they may not want to be halted by the USA organic certification process when they just want to sell their wine. So they skip it.
So what about biodynamic wines?
Biodynamic wines use a form of agriculture very similar to organic farming, and winery methods similar to those required for organic winemaking, but which include various concepts from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s farming methods treat soil fertility, plant growth, plant products, livestock care, and livestock products as ecologically interrelated. Biodynamic agriculture uses compost and manure for fertilization, natural herb and mineral supplements for field sprays, and prohibits the use of anything artificial on the farm. It treats the entire vineyard as an interrelated part of a self-sufficient farm and considers the influence of weather, air pressure, seasons, and movements of the moon and planets on the rythms of the farm. The term “biodynamic” refers to both the agricultural methods used to grow the vines, as well as winery processing.
Biodynamic wines run into similar labeling and conceptual problems as organic wines. Demeter is the brand for products labeled as biodynamic. While International Demeter ensures a comprehensive certification process and strict compliance, it is important to realize that there are different Demeter certification organizations in every country and often several within each country.
Furthermore, biodynamic farming reaches farther back in history than the Demeter certification and Steiner. Historically, before any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and mechanizations were available, farmers had to understand the natural interconnectedness of all living things on a farm. To this day many winegrowers, especially in Europe, still practice biodynamic philosophies on their farms and see no point in spending time and money for Demeter to brand and certify them as biodynamic.
Wine.com categorizes all wines—biodynamic, organic, and sustainably farmed—into an overall “Green” category. You can rest assured that anything that we’ve put a green leaf next to has been produced in an ecologically responsible manner with the environment and our health in mind.
If you have a specific allergy or concern, our Green category is great place to start your wine search. After locating wines you are interested in, contact our recommendations team for more information or the producer to find out more on their production details.
Here are some examples of different “Green” wines we carry to help you get started.
These days, autumn is basically a synonym for “pumpkin spice everything season,” but let’s not forget about the other cozy, delightful fragrances and flavors of fall. Whether you’re enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, relaxing in front of a roaring fire, or rewarding yourself after a long day of raking leaves, you don’t need to venture to Starbucks or a candle shop to get your fix of your favorite flavors. Instead, look for a bottle of wine that captures those characteristics (it will be a lot more fun!).
If you like: Autumn leaves Try: Red Burgundy Red Burgundy, made from Pinot Noir, will always exhibit typical notes of red fruit—strawberry, cherry, cranberry, and pomegranate, to name a few—but sometimes the wines from this renowned region will also feature a flavor that is a bit more savory, more wild, and very specific to the local terroir. Continue reading Seasonal Sipping: Capturing the Flavors of Fall in a Glass→
Halloween party planning is in the works and if you’re scouting for some spooky sips to serve friends and fiends at Halloween happenings, then look no further! From wicked reds to a ghostly white, these wines vow to take a creepy spin on the fruit of the vine.
A blood-red blend of plush Sonoma fruit, Besieged gives a dubious nod to the day winemaker, Joel Peterson, harvested grapes under thunderous skies and circling ravens, the notorious bird of ill omen. Happily, the day’s dark clouds rolled by and Ravenswood wines shine brighter than ever with intensity, power, and rich berry-driven flavors. Besieged is no exception, built on the blood red blend of Petite Sirah, Carignane, Zinfandel, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, and Barbera, this limited-edition, Sonoma-county carrying bottle rocks the palate with dark fruit, a full body and a tangle of well-integrated tannins.
If the devil’s in the details, then this lip-smacking, pitchfork-wielding Washington State Merlot has them covered. Columbia Valley, through and through, showing off whole berry fermentation that gives aromatics a leg up and tannins a smoothing out, 10 months of barrel aging (30% new oak), and going for gutsy by utilizing some native yeast influences during fermentation, the Velvet Devil delivers black plum, Bing cherry and a dash of cocoa in a medium-bodied, easy to drink style.