The United States is the world’s 4th largest wine producer (behind Italy, France and Spain) and, surprisingly, every one of America’s 50 states has some commercial wineries. Yes – even Alaska, apparently, despite its location way further north than the normally accepted limits for ripening grapes. Top of the tree is California – that state makes almost 90% of the USA’s entire wine output including some of the world’s most expensive bottles as well as many for more every day drinking that you can find on any supermarket shelf.
But, for today, I’m going to ignore both of these extremes and focus on Washington state. It actually has the 2nd largest wine production after California – a very distant 2nd, admittedly, making less than a tenth as much wine as that giant, but look around the shelves and you’ll find some interesting and attractive wines from there in a diversity of styles.
The majority of the state’s vineyards are away from the Pacific coast, to the east of the Cascade Mountains and in their rain shadow, which means that much of the area is semi-desert and growing vines is dependent on irrigation using water from the local rivers. Washington’s location, straddling the 46°N line of latitude (which equates to northern Bordeaux/southern Burgundy in European terms), is ideal for vineyards and the short, hot, sunny, dry summers are perfect for ripening both red and white grapes.
We opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon recently from Chateau Ste Michelle, easily the state’s biggest producer (Majestic, £14.99). Lovely deep colour with subtle black fruit and cinnamon on the nose. The palate is fresh with more black fruits – blackberries and black plums – soft tannins and a distinctly oaky overtone. The finish is, perhaps, a little shorter than you might expect from a wine at this price but it’s a very drinkable glassful, nonetheless, particularly when paired with a tasty beef or game casserole.
It may be easier to find something from California but, on the strength of this and a few others I have tasted, Washington state has some attractive offerings, too.
Sadly, once again I find myself blogging about the woes affecting California’s vineyards. The state has ideal summer weather, perfect for ripening grapes, but the heat and dryness brings the risk of wildfires which, over the past few years seem to have worsened, becoming a serious and unwelcome regular event. Two of the most extensive fires ever recorded have struck the area recently with, tragically, a number of fatalities plus several injuries and many homes and businesses destroyed. The fires are mainly in or close to key wine producing areas and already I have seen reports of extensive fire damage to 2 wineries, one in Solano County and one in the Santa Cruz Mountains and more minor damage to vines and outbuildings elsewhere including at 3 estates in Napa. But the damage caused directly by the fire is only part of the story as far as wine producers are concerned. Acrid smoke hangs in the air around the fires and can be smelt many miles beyond; a number of official warnings for poor air quality are in force. Although this is bad for the local population, this year, more than ever before, it is affecting the grapes, too. The 2020 fire season has begun earlier than usual and, as a result, many of the grapes are still on the vines, unlike previous years when most would already have been harvested and be safely in the winery fermenting. This creates a particular problem, especially for red grapes. If smoke gets into the grape skins, it will taint the flavours and produce bitter, unpleasant tastes. White wines will be less affected as the winemakers can quickly press the grapes releasing the juice and the impact should be minimal. Not so for reds, where the skins are a crucial part of the process, essential for flavour and texture in the wine. It has been suggested that more rosé will be made as a consequence, but that isn’t really what the premium areas of California are aiming for. The very latest reports are that the temperatures have moderated slightly giving the firefighters a chance to get the blazes under control. We can only hope that continues but, with the fire season still far from over, the problem could be around for some time to come. I join with all wine lovers to say we will be thinking of the people affected and wishing them well.