...Owing to the often copious crop levels, some winemakers were initially a bit nervous about the intensity of their 2016 wines. But with better levels of natural acidity and lower alcohol than the 2015s, the red wines show higher-pitched and often more complex aromatics, as well as clearer site personality and less hot-year character. “The vintage hits all the high notes,” said David O’Reilly, “with perfect ripe flavors, perfumed aromas and exceptional natural acidity. The great wines happened in the vineyard this year, not the cellar.” Although I’ve only sampled a handful of 2016 reds to this point, it appears to be a more typical, classically styled and less tannic vintage than 2015. I will get a much better idea of the concentration and structure of these wines when I start tasting important examples next year.

But it’s clear already that 2016 is a terrific year for white wine in Washington State and an ideal opportunity to sample some of these wines if your experience with Washington’s whites is limited. Some comments I received were “focused, fresh and terroir-driven” (Christophe Baron), “compellingly bright and aromatic” (Mike Januik) and “by far more balanced than the 2015s, with brilliant acidity and lower alcohols across the board” (Peter Devison). Generally lower alcohol levels typically accentuate the impression of freshness, and varietal flavors were less likely to be burned off by excessive heat than they had been for white grapes in 2015. 

Similarly, more than one producer told me that he preferred Merlot in 2016 to 2015 as this early-picked, sunburn-prone variety came in under more moderate temperatures. And Aryn Morell (Gard Vintners, Alleromb, Ardor Cellars and others), who consistently excels with an amazingly wide range of varieties (he made 64 wines from 18 varieties in 2016), called the 2016s from Rhône varieties “stunning — with terrific aromatics and good weight and texture, and plenty of energy for long-term development.” Morell also expressed something of a contrarian opinion when he told me that “although the 2016s from red Bordeaux varieties have less overtly ripe tones than the ‘15s, they have more weight and palate presence.”

 

A colorful collection of labels from Christophe Baron

Another Word on 2014 and 2013 

My coverage this year also includes a number of top 2014 bottlings as well as some late-released ‘13s. As I noted in my coverage of Washington last year, 2013 was a consistently very warm growing season, in most areas the hottest since 2003, even if it didn’t experience quite the heat spikes of the earlier vintage. The harvest began in some sites toward the end of August, and temperatures remained unseasonably warm through the first half of September, which meant that some white grapes and Merlot came in under less than ideal conditions. But after the 15th, temperatures plunged, and they remained cool through the rest of the harvest, allowing for much longer-than-anticipated hang time for late varieties. The 2014 growing season tracked 2013 closely through June, then turned even hotter in July and August (it was the hottest July on record in Prosser, in Yakima Valley); in the end, it was the hottest growing season to date for Red Mountain in terms of total degree-days. The harvest began very early, during the second half of August, and was unusually compressed owing to the sustained heat, in some cases taxing growers and wineries. The ‘14s are deep, powerful and often high in octane, but many superb wines were made. As a gross generalization, the 2014s are more user-friendly and a bit higher in acidity, while the 2013s are more tannic and began their life in bottle a bit more angular.

The wines in this article were tasted in Walla Walla and Seattle during the last week of June and the last week of July, and in extensive subsequent tastings (and retastings) in New York in September and early October.