Though best known for red wines like Cabernet and Syrah, Washington further distinguishes itself by producing outstanding bottles from a variety of grapes.

What defines Washington State wine? That’s the question the state has been trying to answer as it grows from its infancy—most vineyards have been planted in the last 40 years—into its adolescence as a wine-growing region.

This month’s series of Washington reviews provides no easy answer. Top scoring wines include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-­style blends, Rhône-style blends, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Malbec and Merlot. Oh, and there are quality rosés and ice wines mixed in there too.

Why so much diversity? There are more than 40 wine-grape varieties planted in Washington, and many have shown an affinity for the region.

Looking at why that is, it’s important to understand that the Columbia Valley—Washington’s­ largest growing region—is far from monolithic. Taking up nearly a third of the land mass of the state, it’s a diverse winegrowing region, full of ranges of elevation and heat accumulation. Additionally, the Columbia Valley is a desert, with warm, dry temperatures, meaning irrigation is required in almost all vineyards. This provides growers with a fine level of control over the amount of water that each grape vine receives, increasing both quality and consistency, while allowing a large number of grape varieties to flourish.

There are more than 40 wine-grape varieties planted in Washington, and many have shown an affinity for the region.

With so much diversity, how are we to understand Washington as a wine region? Certainly, red grape varieties surpass white varieties in terms of quality, though high-quality white wines undoubtedly exist.

Otherwise, what unites the wines across variety is ripe New World fruit combined with an Old World-style structure, with higher acidity due to cool nights.

Washington probably won’t be identified with a single grape variety any time soon. However, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are increasingly separating themselves. Will these grapes eventually become Washington’s calling card? Only time will tell.

[Check out Sean's list of great wines to try now.]  Read More »