Washington State, with new production areas still being discovered, is younger than most other wine regions. Production has shifted from white to red varieties, a trend related to both consumer preferences and expansion of production into warm sites. There is interest in varieties and clones new to Washington State as the industry continues in its search for optimal sites to match with varieties.
Good Fruit Grower recently asked industry members to forecast what varieties Washington will be known for during the next decade.
"The national recognition of Merlot, coupled with the quality that this state is consistently able to achieve, will continue to drive Merlot forward," Jonathan Sauer said. "Merlot is my guesstimation as the leading variety over the next ten years."
Riesling is still a leading contender, he added, because the variety does so well in Washington. "We do Riesling better than anyone else and we’re just starting a new dedication to high-quality whites. But I still fall back to Merlot, one of the leading varieties in terms of acreage. I think Merlot is making a comeback. It is so versatile, and can get blended in many wines. Syrah is still growing, but I don’t see it surpassing Merlot."
Sauer grows wine and juice grapes with his father at the base of Mt. Adams in the Yakima Valley. They were some of the pioneers of planting a diverse mix of varieties, including Syrah.
Cabernet Franc is the main wine grape variety grown by Dennis Pleasant, a wine and juice grape grower and one of the few red currant producers in the state. The wineries he sells to are usually sold out of their Cabernet Franc wines within two weeks of releasing them, he said. The variety is grown in small quantities (accounting for less than 10 percent of the total red –varieties in the state), but Pleasant said it does well in –different locations and is cold hardy.
"I think it’s kind of a sleeper," he said. "I think Washington will eventually be known for a Bordeaux-style wine. It’ll be a blend and not necessarily a variety. Cabernet Franc started out as mainly a blending grape but also has had success on its own."
Syrah and Chardonnay
Vernon Brown is a grower as well as owner of Fairacre Farm and Nursery that produces certified grape plant material. While different clones and varieties have been grown in Washington for years, many in the wine industry are taking another look at some of them, he said. Wine varieties are very site specific and must be properly matched with location.
In the future, he believes the state will be known for Syrah. "Syrah has been in very high demand." He also –singled out Chardonnay as the primary white variety.
"We’ll get a lot better at what we’ve been doing," Brown said. "A lot of the fads (clones) will fade. There is a place for them but not in large quantity."
"Personally, I think that Cabernet Sauvignon
"It’s the variety that we’re already known for. Even though we as an industry often say that Riesling is our signature variety, we have great quality and great acclaim for Cabernet. I think that it will be Cabernet that we will really be known for."
"The collaboration between the grower and winemaker in Washington has reached a point where we now know how to extract the best quality from that particular grape," said Mike Means, vineyard manager for Canoe Ridge Vineyard winery, Walla Walla. "This year is a prime example of that. The Cabernet grapes had deep intense color and great aromas."
He added that winemakers are crafting more approachable Cabernet wines that are not too tannic and meant to be enjoyed at a young age instead of after years of cellaring.
"The consumer’s tastes are changing, and they are more open to wines that are more approachable."