As fires sweep across the western USA, it highlights a factor about wine-making in Washington State - water. The USA's most western and northerly wine-producing region would not be able to grow anything if it were not for a vast and intricate irrigation system. And if the wells and sprinklers were not there? Well, it would be an arid semi-moonscape, covered in the fragrant wiry shrub sagebrush, broken occasionally by glimpses of snow-capped mounts Hood and Adams. A landscape, in fact, that would not be out of place in a Western.
The lack of water is due to the Cascades, a vast range of mountains creating a rain shadow and making the climatic conditions of this verdant state's capital, Seattle, quite different from that of eastern Washington, where most of the wine is cultivated.
Temperatures in the east can be extreme, with highs in the summer of up to 40ºC and freezing in the winter. It can get so cold that every five to seven years some vines above ground level die. What this means in wine terms is that the number of sunlight hours and heat achieved during the summer months can lead to great ripeness, while the cold, dry climate in the winter helps promote balance and acidity in the grapes. Add to this formula the carefully monitored addition of water and the potential is there to produce some great wines.
The principal varieties cultivated are the classic New World combination of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. There are, however, some interesting Syrahs and Sémillons becoming available. Many wine-makers and winery owners believe that the future for the state lies in its red wines, and more specifically in the Meritage (Médoc-style) blends.
Certainly, many of the more expensive wines tend to be blends in the Bordeaux style - wines that on the surface would seem to be most suited to the on-trade.
Price is definitely an issue when it comes to the wines of Washington. They are not exactly cheap stateside, but add British duty and taxes and a UK wine-buyer is forced to ask, are they getting value for money? So, Caterer pulled together 18 red wines from Washington State and a group of top tasters to find out.
Fiona Sims, wine editor of Caterer & Hotelkeeper, unfurled her lasso and rounded-up a group of tasters at London's North-west American restaurant, Dakota.
Kate Thal, wine buyer of the Hartford Group (which owns Dakota), hosted the tasting, while Charlotte Hey, associate publisher of Harpers - The Wine and Spirit Weekly, brought the wines together. They were joined by Ronan Sayburn, head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay restaurant, and Jason McAuliffe, wine buyer and head sommelier for Chez Bruce in London.
A range of single varietals were tasted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and a number of Bordeaux/Meritage blends.
Despite the promise of new wines from a region that is setting out its stall in the quality stakes, the tasters' overall impression was pretty poor. No single wine scored high enough to attain three stars.
McAuliffe was particularly damning. "Out of both wines that didn't smell of spearmint, I liked one of them. I found the balance between fruit and tannins was not integrated, in the main. There was a simple jammy character to the wines that indicated they were going for universal appeal. That might do for Joe Public, but if they want to sell to restaurant buyers, they are going to have to think again. I imagine that they would be good with a kebab late at night."
Thal was rather less condemning: "The good wines were well-made with simple fruit. But, on the whole, they were flat and boring, with way too much oak and some incredibly bitter finishes." She added: "Having said that, I went to a tasting of Washington wines three years ago and they all seemed to be incredibly dilute - at least now there is some fruit and concentration there."
The question of pricing was raised more than once. Sayburn said: "A lot of the wines tasted were young and tough, and the quality variable. However, some had good potential. I do not list any Washington wines and this tasting would not make me change my mind. If they were coming in at £7-£9 rather than £10-£15, I might think again."
Thal concluded that, overall, "they are not cheap when you consider you can get better wines from many other regions". And she urged: "Washington - we want a bit more for our money." n