After two of the coolest back-to-back summers in Washington winegrowing history (2010 and 2011), Mother Nature boomeranged, with four straight growing seasons each warmer than the previous, culminating with scorchers in 2014 and 2015. Wines made from 2014’s and 2015’s grapes have produced plush reds perfect for the dark and cold of midwinter. They also make up the preponderance of Washington reds currently on the market.
“Since 1989, I have not seen warmer vintages back to back than 2014 and 2015,” notes David Larsen of Kent-based Soos Creek Wine Cellars.” The data backs him up. Washington State University (WSU) tracks a measure called growing degree days (GDD), which calculates the amount of heat accumulation over the course of a growing season. WSU’s Benton City station, at the base of Red Mountain, recorded the two highest figures in the station’s history (which began in 1996) in 2014 and 2015—almost 50 percent higher than a cool year, like 2011.
Hot summers can present challenges in the vineyards. Each vine’s leaf canopy must be managed to protect the grapes from damaging afternoon sunburn, explains JJ Williams of Red Mountain–based Kiona Vineyards, and vineyard workers must walk each row to ensure all the vines receive enough water from drip irrigation lines. “Sometimes the ends of each row can fool you,” notes Williams. “They can look perfectly fine, while the middle of each row is dried out.”
Experienced farmers like the Williams family know how to manage these challenges, and also understand the potential for outstanding wines from warmer years. Grapes are like any crop: Give them more heat and sunshine, and they’ll ripen faster. When wineries harvest riper grapes, those grapes come with riper flavors and also higher sugar levels, which translate into more robust alcohols after all that sugar is fermented. The finished products are rich, supple and delicious.
This style of red is perfect for the long gloom of the Pacific Northwest winter. There is something warming about glugging down a rich red wine after a cold day of cleaning gutters. It’s the adult equivalent of the mug of steaming hot cocoa, minus the marshmallows. Furthermore, big ripe reds dovetail perfectly with the foods we eat this time of year. When our kitchens turn toward the braised and the roasted, 2014 and 2015 Washington reds are beautiful complements.
“2014 was a superb year for us,” notes Soos Creek’s Larsen, “with well-balanced wines regardless of the vineyard. 2015, which is the hottest vintage, is my favorite since 1999.” Williams of Kiona agrees: “The wines are fruit-forward crowd-pleasers, easy to like.” Then he chuckles and adds, “These are wines that our customers want to guzzle by the gallon.”
Paul’s Warm-vintage Picks
Corvidae is a value label for Wapato-based Owen Roe, and winemaker David O’Reilly has turned out a spectacular value with his 2014 Merlot. It’s a delicious truffle of a wine, mixing pure cherry fruit with rich high-cacao chocolate. Sneaky fine-grained tannins emerge on the finish, offering wonderful scaffolding for all that supple, delicious fruit.
Pairs with: Garlicky pork sausages served on a bed of warm, mustardy green lentils.
Nathan Gray is a value label for Woodinville-based importer/distributor Cru Selections, and this Syrah is a well-priced single-vineyard beauty, coming from high-elevation (1,300–1,400 feet) Den Hoed Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. The nose offers marionberry fruit with top notes of violet and peony, and bass notes of earthy soil and espresso. This is a lovely, fruit-driven Syrah that delights with its freshness and inner-mouth perfume.
Pairs with: An olive-studded lamb stew.
Most of this Cabernet Sauvignon (68 percent) and Merlot (32 percent) blend comes from the outstanding Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills. It is an intense palate stainer, with plush fruits—black currant, black plum, cherry—complicated by subtleties of tobacco leaf and espresso. The finish is long, rich and satisfying.
Pairs with: Coffee-rubbed, smoked brisket.
Two-thirds of this wine comes from Kiona’s estate vineyards on Red Mountain, including a significant amount from the North Block, planted in the 1970s. Rich red raspberry fruit is swaddled in warming barrel tones of vanilla and cocoa powder, and balanced by a bright vein of citrus-peel acidity. The toothsome finishing tannins are very true to Cabernet, very true to Red Mountain.
Pairs with: Wine-braised short ribs on a bed of soft polenta.
Old Scratch is a value label for Chris Gorman of Woodinville-based Gorman Winery, a winemaker who has no problem embracing warm vintages to make wines that are hedonist fever dreams. This one comes predominantly from Quintessence Vineyard, a newer site on Red Mountain that’s been turning heads in recent years. The nose pairs Rainier cherry fruit with lovely green earthy tones, almost like the peppery watercress notes you find in good Cabernet Franc. The texture offers just-right chewiness, carried by dusty, medium-grained tannins, which leave a lingering finish of chamomile tea.
Pairs with: A porterhouse steak, for the full hedonist experience.