Best of Washington Wine

The 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington

These bottles include debuts, risk takers, or creations that simply deliver astounding quality or value. Best of all, most are obtainable.

By Sean P. Sullivan September 11, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Needs some time in the cellar or a nice, long decant.

Drink this wine with food.

Leonetti Cellar Aglianico Serra Pedace Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2013 $75 

It’s a big deal when one of the state’s founding wine families adds a bottle to its lineup. Especially when it’s a grape almost exclusive to southern Italy. The first example of aglianico to come out of Walla Walla Valley is aged a whopping 44 months (12 to 24 is common for reds) in a combination of French oak and amphorae, the ancient clay vessels recently embraced again by modern winemakers. The result brings the firm tannins and high acid this variety is known for, not to mention the quality inherent to Leonetti.

21 Grams Columbia Valley 2013 $125 

Often when you taste a wine there’s a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Really well-balanced wines, like this one, exist as a smooth line; components like acid, tannins, and oak hang together the entire time and persist long after you’ve taken a sip. It’s not easy to do. Fruit from Cold Creek, Windrow, and Stone Tree vineyards goes into this bottle, which is far more refined than a typical Bordeaux-style blend from the state.

Avennia Sestina Columbia Valley 2015 $65 

Some wines have exciting backstories; others stand out purely for the quality. Of the 79 Bordeaux-style blends I’ve tasted from this vintage, this is the best thus far; it’s named after a form of poetry in Medieval France and comes from some of the oldest vines at esteemed Red Willow, Bacchus, and Dionysus vineyards. The blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc delivers bittersweet chocolate, raspberry, blackberry, and herb aromas, and the flavors show sophistication and length.

Upchurch Vineyard's Counterpart red wine is 65 percent merlot, 35 percent cabernet sauvignon.

Upchurch Vineyard Counterpart Red Wine Red Mountain 2015 $50 

One of the state’s most talented winemakers, Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars, also has his own vineyard, where he takes great care choosing which clones to plant. Wines made entirely from these grapes are released under this side project; his inaugural merlot-dominant blend is all about black raspberry and blackberry aromas, followed by rich fruit flavors supported by firm tannins.

Spring Valley Vineyard Katherine Corkrum Estate Grown Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley 2015 $50

Washington winemakers often treat cabernet franc much like cabernet sauvignon—picking grapes when quite ripe, then lavishing the resulting wine with new oak, which can override this variety’s inherent delicacy. This wine, a label under the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates umbrella, gives the elegantly herbal grape its due. It’s a lighter, prettier wine than most of the state’s cab francs, full of green pepper, flower, and cherry notes.

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2015 $200 

The 2015 vintage marks an evolution for this benchmark Washington cabernet: It’s the first time Quilceda has used fruit from Lake Wallula Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills in its flagship wine. Not only is one of our eldest wineries embracing the possibilities of grapes outside its usual Champoux Vineyard, but the result is the best cabernet I’ve tasted this year, by a long shot. It should have at least a good two decades in front of it.

Passing Time Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills 2015 $80 

This label would be noteworthy even if its only distinction were the winery’s owners: former NFL quarterbacks, Dan Marino and Damon Huard. But Passing Time has always produced supremely delicious wines, and the 2015 vintage of this Horse Heaven Hills offering takes that high quality to a new level—it’s their most impressive wine to date. Cassis, blackberry, and scorched earth aromas lead to ripe, layered fruit flavors, producing a compelling sense of texture.

Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2014 $50 

Cabernet sauvignon can often be a big, bold oaky wine that stands alone like a cocktail. This offering from Greg Harrington—a winemaker who also has an ultra-rigorous Master Sommelier designation—is a counter-culture cabernet for Washington. Lower levels of ripeness and oak pave the way for aromas of herb, raspberry, earth, and graphite, followed by elegantly styled red and black fruit flavors. Higher levels of acidity make this a dinner table standout.

Januik Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Champoux Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills 2015 $55

Champoux Vineyard is Washington cabernet holy land; here longtime winemaker Mike Januik captures the essence of the vineyard perfectly. The excitement lies in the superb quality of this wine: Black cherry, black currant, and coffee aromas lead to exquisitely balanced dark fruit flavors. The vineyard’s trademark fine-grained—aka exceptionally smooth—tannins are on full display.

Kiona Vineyards Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2014 $75

When Jim Holmes and John Williams planted the first cabernet on Red Mountain in 1975, it seemed like folly. Most people thought the area was too cool to ripen this grape. Nearly 40 years later, cabernet is king of the mountain, and makes up 60 percent of its plantings. This is your chance to taste fruit from those first 1975 vines that launched some of Washington’s most sought-after wines.

Sixto Chardonnay Moxee Washington 2015 $55

A few years back, winemakers Charles Smith and Brennon Leighton struck out with a bold goal: a revival of high-quality American chardonnay, a grape often known more for its ubiquity. They sought older vines, which lend additional richness (plantings for this bottle date back to 1973) and higher-elevation vineyards where grapes have longer hang time on the vine. This vintage is testament to their success.

L’Ecole No. 41 Old Vines Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley 2017 $15

Seven years ago, Washington had nearly 200 acres of old-vine chenin blanc. Today it’s about 30; these vines don’t yield a lot of money, so they’re being replaced with more profitable varieties. Standing in the way of this grape’s total eradication in our state is L’Ecole No. 41 and its commitment to this superb, affordable wine. Vines planted in 1978 and 1979 deliver extra complexity and midpalate depth.

Two Vintners Cinsault Make Haste Yakima Valley 2015 $21

Typically this grape appears as a bit player in Rhône-style blends, but winemaker Morgan Lee does something highly unusual with cinsault: He makes a standout 100 percent varietal version that is also extremely well priced. This combination of quality and value makes it fly out the door at the winery, so you might be hard pressed to find a bottle. Mark your calendar for the release of the next vintage.

Horsepower Vineyards Grenache Sur Echalas Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2015 $120

Christophe Baron planted these vines sur échalas—on stakes—with the rows so tightly spaced draft horses must be used to plow the rows, as tractors are too large. This old-school farming method makes for a romantic story, but also impacts the wine. A lot. Grenache is always a challenge to ripen in the Rocks, but the rewards are evident in this bottle, which is one of the finest wines I have tasted from the Pacific Northwest to date.

Elephant Seven Grenache Yellow Bird Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2016 $30

I don’t think I’ve even seen a grenache from this part of the valley before. And what’s more exciting than a young winery making a thoroughly delicious wine from an area of Walla Walla Valley (Upper Mill Creek) not typically associated with this variety? The pleasantly reasonable price tag.

Savage Grace Côt Malbec Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2016 $32 

Malbecs produced in Washington sometimes receive heavy amounts of oak, a method that can yield some very nice wines, even if they don’t really convey the essence of this particular variety. In this inaugural vintage, winemaker Michael Savage pulls back the oak to produce a malbec unlike any other in the state, with generous aromas and flavors of black pepper, flower, herb, and gravel. This food-friendly bottle isn’t necessarily a swerve for the iconoclastic Savage, but it is a swerve for the state’s entire population of malbecs.

Latta Wines Mourvèdre Snipes Mountain 2014 $40

Mourvèdre has shown much promise in Washington over the years. At last, a remarkable wine that realizes that promise. Aromas of blackberry, cigar box, herb, black pepper and roasted meat give way to rich, layered fruit flavors with an exceptionally long finish. It’s a complete knockout.

Syncline Winery Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2017 $25 

Two characteristics you don’t see of much in the state’s white wines are here in full force: racy acidity (think freshly squeezed lemon) and abundant minerality (aka aromas and flavors of wet stone). Whew, with all that acid, you’ll absolutely want some food too; pair it with scallops and lemon and caper butter sauce.

Kevin White Winery Pionnier Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2015 $35

First the good news. The inaugural release of this grenache-dominant blend is a thrilling wine at an absurd price given the quality in the bottle. Kevin White mostly focuses on Rhône grapes, so it’s no surprise he captures grenache at its best: intellectually interesting but also unabashedly hedonistic. Truly, it’s a pleasure to drink. Now the bad news: The winery made a microscopic 98 cases, so securing a bottle is no easy feat.

La Rata Red Blend Walla Walla Valley 2015 $75

This unusual blend of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah made by Cayuse Vineyards assistant vigneronne Elizabeth Bourcier is unique in the valley. Yes, the aromas and flavors of earth, campfire, sea salt, cherry, and raspberry are dazzling in their own right. But the real story of this wine is the insane finish—more than 45 seconds long.

Damsel Cellars The Fates Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2015 $36

Winemaker Mari Womack's inaugural offering of this grenache and mourvèdre-dominant blend shows how well other Rhône varieties can excel in Boushey Vineyards, perhaps the state’s most hallowed ground for syrah. Here, Damsel employs an old-school winemaking method: Grenache and mourvèdre are picked at the same time and fermented together for more harmonious flavors.

Sightglass Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Artz Vineyard Red Mountain 2017 $20

Winemaker Sean Boyd spent close to 15 years building his reputation at Woodinville Wine Cellars before he struck out with his own winery. This wine shows a terrific winemaker in top form. Fermented and aged in stainless steel, it’s loaded with bright fruit flavors backed by lively acidity.

Lobo Hills Sauvignon Blanc Yakima Valley 2017 $17 

Owner and winemaker Tony Dollar ferments and ages this wine in stainless steel tanks that include rocks from the vineyard, trying to capture a little something else from the terroir. Does it work? Well, there’s an unexpected mineral edge to a wine that’s loaded with kiwi and white grapefruit flavors, as well as far more acid than you typically see in a Washington sauvignon blanc. How much do I love this wine? I bought six bottles.

MTR Productions Memory Found Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2012 $85

The first offering from this side project of Matt Reynvaan (Reynvaan Family Vineyards) and his wife, Lauren, does away with the typical winery calculation: How long must wine stay on oak to mature, and how quickly can we get it bottled and sold? The couple kept this syrah on oak for 24 months, versus the typical 16 or so; then it spent another three years in the bottle prior to release. The result is a wine in full bloom, with an insanely lengthy, smoked meat finish.

WT Vintners Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2015 $40

In 2015, WT produced four stunning wines, each made entirely of grapes from Boushey Vineyards: this syrah, a grenache, a mourvèdre, and an equal blend of those three varieties, all aged in neutral oak. As a wine lover, you don’t get many opportunities to compare such direct expressions of varieties from one of the most desirable vineyards in the state. My suggestion: Have a tasting party with all four wines to compare and contrast. But if you have to pick just one wine, this is it.

Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2015 $60

If you want a high-quality introduction to the Rocks and the appellation’s uncommon wines, look no further. This bottle brings all of the unique aromas this area is known for—green and black olive, funk, wet stone, ember, black pepper, and prosciutto. Smoked meat flavors persist on the finish.

Delmas Syrah SJR Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2016 $70

Most producers in the Rocks District take a light hand with new oak, if they use any at all. This wine goes against the current; 58 percent of this offering is aged in new French barrels. Fruit and barrel intertwine in the aromas and flavors, leading to an extended finish. It’s supremely delicious now but has a very long life in front of it.

Waters Winery Syrah Washington 2014 $32

A top-quality syrah for less than $40 is somewhat of a unicorn in Washington, but that’s exactly what we have here. Winemaker Jamie Brown is always one to buck convention. Here, he chooses fruit from three top sites—Old Stones, Patina, and Olsen—and eschews the increasingly common approach of fermenting syrah with grape stems to increase acid and add tannin. Smoked meat, olive, blueberry, orange peel, and flower aromas give way to soft, plush feeling fruit flavors that carry on the finish.

Rôtie Cellars Southern White Wine Walla Walla Valley 2017 $32 

Walla Walla Valley is dominated by red grape varieties, which make up 95 percent of plantings. However, a few winemakers are exploring its potential for whites, with fascinating results. This viognier, roussanne, and marsanne blend offers up aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, tangerine, pear, and wet stone so pure they’re almost mesmerizing.

DeLille Cellars Chaleur Blanc Columbia Valley 2016 $35

Chaleur Blanc is always one of the state’s highest-regarded white wines, and this might be the best release this decade. A white Bordeaux–style blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon offers white grapefruit, guava, pineapple, and fig aromas that are followed by rich, textured fruit flavors. While near irresistible now, it also has a lot of cellaring potential—unusual for a Washington white wine.

Editor's Note: Updated September 27 at 11:30am to substitute a correct URL.

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