Washington state may be the second-largest wine producer in the United States, but next to California, with 90 percent of the country’s wine production, Washington’s 4 percent poses no real challenge—at least in terms of quantity.
When it comes to quality, however, there is serious debate about which state is better, especially when the grape in question is the country’s favorite red wine: Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa’s hallmark wines are big and powerful reds—wines with lots of fruit, power, and intensity and often high levels of alcohol. They can be lush and smooth, but sharp, sometimes harsh tannin on the finish is not unusual.
A classic Washington Cabernet is different. It can have the same generous fruit of a California wine, but it will also have the acidity and structure of an old-world wine. And more often than not the tannins are sweet and smooth.
Cabernet needs prolonged sun exposure to ripen its surfeit of tannins. In Washington, which is at the same latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux, the grapes get longer, slightly cooler sunlight—two to three more hours per day during the prime growing season than they would get farther south in California.
Larry Stone, the master sommelier and general manager of Napa’s Rubicon Estate, grew up in Seattle and has long been a devotee of Washington wines. He explains that the challenge in California is getting the grapes physically ripe (meaning their flavors and tannins) while keeping the sugars at moderate levels. “In most, though not all, Cabernet sites in California, the sugar races ahead of the other aspects of ripeness, meaning that to harvest grapes with fully ripe flavors and tannins you have to wait,” he says. “And while you’re waiting for tannins to soften, sugar levels are climbing through the roof.” High sugars lead to wines that are very high in alcohol (unless the alcohol is lowered artificially by machine). In Washington, he says, “It’s also cooling down as the sunlight hours get longer, which helps preserve that acidity. And the tannins simply have more time to get ripe without sugars getting out of control.”
Many Washington winemakers are bowing to fads, making superripe, high-alcohol wines. But it’s also easy to find affordable, delicious wines with generous fruit, soft tannins, and enough acidity. Washington has several regions that produce good Cabernet, but I’m especially fond of the wines from the Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, and Horse Heaven Hills areas. There are a few vineyards where lots of the best wine is sourced, so look out for bottles mentioning Red Willow, Champoux, Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, and Seven Hills.
Under $20, the Genesis Cabernet from the Hogue Cellars is simply delicious, as well as a classic Washington wine, with rich cherry and cassis notes above silky tannins. Columbia Winery continues to make extremely graceful Cabernets, somewhat lighter in body than many of its comrades’, but with exceptional smoothness. Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards is another extremely reliable brand. In the over-$40 range, I love the blend of Cabernet and Syrah (Washington’s other hot variety) called Columbia Rediviva by the Buty (pronounced beauty) winery—it’s medium bodied with lots of concentration and dense, sweet tannins on the finish. Andrew Will and Woodward Canyon should also be sought out.