Washington contains more cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines than any state besides California. And like California cabs, most Washington cabs are fruit-forward, but to a different degree.
Eastern Washington gets very hot during the summer, but the evening temperatures dip. That gives the fruit a chance to cool off, preventing over-ripening. That is not to say that all California cabs are fruitier, but in Washington there is a better chance for the wines to have higher acidity, which in that sense makes them more like Bordeaux.
This is even truer of merlot. From a flavor point of view, both cab and merlot are more similar to California in that they often have densely packed fruit. In the case of Washington and sometimes California, that’s a result of high-altitude vineyards.
One of the big differences, though, is price. Even though Washington has certainly caught up at the high end, it still offers many more bargains.
Here are three of the best:
- The Velvet Devil Merlot, 2011 (Washington): Under the K Vintners label, Charles Smith created some of the most expressive, Rhône-like syrahs in the U.S. I am always at the very least intrigued by his wines. He co-produces Secco Italian Bubbles, sparkling wines from Italy, and is involved in several other ventures, including VINO, Charles & Charles and Charles Smith Wines, the label that is responsible for The Velvet Devil Merlot. Eighty-three percent merlot, 8 percent malbec, 6 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent syrah, this is a very tasty wine with black currants, cherries, fresh oregano, silken tannins and a long, plush finish. Suggested retail: $12
- Kiona Vineyards Cabernet-Merlot, 2010 (Washington): Located in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area, which was not even designated until 2001, John and Ann Williams planted their first vineyards in 1975 and made the first wine from the 1978 harvest. While Kiona has some wines in the $25 to $50 range, they always have selections for less than $20 that reflect personality and quality. Chock-full of blackberries and plums, with a faint hint of leather in the nose and root beer, pepper and cassis on the palate, it’s worth its modest price and then some. Suggested retail: $13
- Sageland Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 (Columbia Valley, Wash.): Sageland has flown under the radar for nearly 30 years. During the early days, nearly every small Washington winery was lucky if it had even a local following. But I’ve never understood, since I first tried its wines in the late 1990s, why Sageland has not gotten more play. Now it is part of the Chalone Wine Group and the production has risen to 60,000 cases. Though located in the Yakima Valley, this intro-level cabernet sauvignon is sourced from Columbia Valley fruit. A mouthful with ripe tannins, blackberries and a tinge of red peppers, it outshines many cabs at higher price points. Suggested retail: $15
Some of these wine can be found through Beverages and More, K&L Wine Merchants and Solano Cellars.
Pamela Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.