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Washington's Coming of Age

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don't let their relative lack of marquee status fool you: Wines from Washington state, which have been rising in quality, offer some of the best values around.

Washington has ascended swiftly in the past 20 years and is now second only to California as a wine-producing state. In 1990, the state had fewer than 70 wineries, including pioneers such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose still and sparkling wines are good buys we've praised in this space before. The number of wineries doubled in the next decade, and this year the Washington Wine Commission counted 540 statewide.

Early on, Washington winemakers focused on Riesling (they still plant more Riesling grapes than any other state), chardonnay and other cool-weather white grapes. In the '80s, the state gained recognition for its rich and ripe merlot, and in the '90s, it was for concentrated, powerful cabernet sauvignon and syrah, all warm-weather red grapes.

Is the weather in Washington that accommodating? Pretty much. Many tend to think of it as we experienced it on our last trip to Seattle in the fall, when it was cool and rainy for days on end. But Washington's wine country on the eastern side of the state is shielded by the Cascade Mountains, so it is dry and warm, with hot summers and cold winters.

The state's varying microclimates allow its winemakers to pair the right grape with the right terroir, contributing to high quality levels. The enormous Columbia Valley winemaking region, which covers one-third of the state, is at the same longitude as Bordeaux, which produces world-class wines from cabernet and merlot grapes.

As the Napa Valley did 30 years ago, Washington wine country is attracting young, experimental winemakers, such as 37-year-old master sommelier Greg Harrington, who left his Manhattan restaurant post a few years back to open Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla.

"In California, they can make good syrah. But in Washington, they can make great syrah," Harrington had told us in his sommelier days. Indeed, the impressive debut of his 2005 Gramercy Cellars Walla Walla Valley Syrah ($40) and 2005 Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Columbia Valley Syrah ($32) won Gramercy notice in Seattle Magazine this year as the state's best new winery. Harrington was cited as best new winemaker.

However, the state's winemaking tradition is established enough to be sprouting some of its own next-generation wineries. Witness the 2006 debut of Mercer Estates, a family-owned winery that represents a partnership of the Mercer and Hogue families headed by renowned grape grower Bud Mercer and winemaker Mike Hogue. Hogue Cellars, founded in 1982, has grown into the second-largest winery in Washington. (We've written about its reasonably priced wines in earlier columns, too.)

Mercer Estates released its first wines this year. Given their pedigree, they are worth seeking out. The limited-production reds sold out quickly, but Mercer's food-friendly whites are still available and nearly as remarkable. Keep an eye out for the peach-noted 2007 Mercer Yakima Valley Riesling ($15), which pairs with teriyaki salmon; the light-bodied, apple-and-pear-fruited 2007 Mercer Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15), which we enjoyed with chicken kebabs; and especially Andrew's pick this week, the beautifully balanced 2007 Mercer Columbia Valley Pinot Gris ($15), which we loved with seared scallops.

Our enjoyment of the Mercer Estates wines led us to reflect on the winemaking expertise apparent even in Hogue's most modestly priced wines. We paired the light-bodied, crisp and apple-noted 2007 Hogue Columbia Valley Pinot Grigio ($9) with pork chops and found it a welcome change from its dry and minerally Italian cousin. Karen's pick this week is the 2006 Hogue Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($9; $6.99 at Calvert Woodley in the District), which, with its robust black-cherry flavors and screw top, is a bargain and one of the best burger wines we know. The honeyed 2007 Hogue Columbia Valley Late Harvest White Riesling ($9) inspired us to poach sliced peaches in it for an impromptu summer dessert that was complemented by a chilled glass of the same.

Given what Hogue is able to deliver for less than $10, we were curious to taste the latest releases of its reserve wines. Our interest was well rewarded by the 2005 Hogue Columbia Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($22), which opens with big apple and pear flavors followed by a strong finish of tropical fruit and coconut. Its flavors melded beautifully with pork and a pineapple-mango salsa.

The 2006 Hogue Columbia Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) needs a good 30 minutes in the glass to reveal its excellence. Right now, it's a big berry bomb with serious tannin and coconut notes, showing best with red meat and grilled or roasted mushrooms. It should continue to age well for several years, as should the 2004 Hogue Columbia Valley Reserve Merlot ($30), which stunned us with its concentration and power, and shined with skirt steak and mushrooms.

Those last two, plus many other Washington state wines we've tasted, are almost indistinguishable from Napa versions costing more than twice the price. So you'll want to get a jump on exploring them before these stars rise even higher.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and the forthcoming "The Flavor Bible," can be reached through their Web site, http://www.becomingachef.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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