For the last 50 years, the state of Washington has quietly but steadily been producing a bevy of tasty wines ranging from crisp, dry whites to spicy, bold reds and just about everything in between.
According to the Washington Wine Center's website, the wine industry has been around in various incarnations since the first wine grapes were planted at Fort Vancouver by the Hudson's Bay Co. in 1825. It wasn't until the 1960s, when commercial wine grape planting took hold, that Washington began to attract national attention. The floodgates opened, and the resulting rapid expansion of the industry exploded in the mid-'70s.
Currently, there are 13 recognized American Viticultural Areas, which encompass more than 43,000 acres planted with 30 different varietals of grapes by 350 growers who produce more than 12 million cases of table wine. Those staggering numbers make Washington the second-largest wine-producing state in the country.
In order to spread the word on Washington wines -- and get a broader range of feedback -- I decided to assemble a panel of enthusiastic amateur wine consumers to help me taste more than 20 white wines. The varietals included chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris and viognier.
To make it interesting, I concealed the wine's identity in an attempt to solicit untainted opinions. The results, complete with some of the more interesting comments from the panelists, are listed below in order of preference. Next week, I will take on Washington's delicious red wines. Retail prices are approximate.
The big hit of the tasting appeared to be the ultra-balanced 2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling ($20) from the Columbia Valley. Originally conceived as a collaboration between world-renowned German winemaker Dr. Ernst Loosen and the winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bob Bertheau, this off-dry wine has a lovely bouquet of nectarines and honeysuckle. The abundant acidity keeps the fresh fruit flavors of apples and peaches energized and the sweetness in check all the way through to the end of the medium finish. One panelist declared, "It smells like honeysuckle flowers!" QPR 9.5
Rhone varietals seem to like the climate in the southeast corner of the state. The 2010 Cougar Crest Estate Grown Viognier ($20), located in the Walla Walla AVA, displays a pretty nose of orange blossoms and apricot. Wonderful flavors of pear, melon and white fig dominate the front of the palate, while interesting notes of butterscotch and honey glide through on the rich, fat finish. As Sarah summed it up beautifully, "Great wine. I would serve this and be proud of it!" QPR 9
Evidently, the cool nights and warm days are an ideal climate for growing Chenin blanc, which is critical in the production of the bright acidity that lets the true nature of the fruit shine through in the 2012 L'Ecole Chenin Blanc ($14) from the Columbia Valley. Stylish scents of white flowers and tropical fruits are prominent on the bouquet, while citrusy flavors of grapefruit, nectarine and mango fall on to the wonderfully refreshing finish. As Linda said, "Nice. I like it! I'd buy it." QPR 9
While many winemakers produce a chardonnay, I had to look twice at the price listed on the remarkable 2011 Tamarack Cellars Chardonnay ($15) from Walla Walla. Refreshing notes of white peach, nectarine and pineapple on the nose are very fragrant. Rich flavors of green apple, ripe pear and tropical fruit coat the entire palate on the way to the clean, medium-bodied finish, where a touch of vanilla and butterscotch add depth and elegance. Nicole had a very sophisticated comment: "I really liked the taste!" Hey, whatever works. QPR 10
The Horse Heaven Hills AVA is located in the southeastern part of the Columbia Valley and is home to the 2012 Canoe Ridge "The Expedition" Pinot Gris ($14). This refreshing wine is bursting with aromas of grapefruit and nectarine on the nose and palate. Additional flavors of tropical fruit and ripe apple appear on the bright finish, where crisp acidity balances out the juicy flavors that linger on and on. Carolyn summed it up with, "It reminds me of Provence." QPR 9.5
QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.