With the exception of Woodinville – which is located about 20 minutes from Seattle – most of Washington wine country is located two or more hours from a major metropolitan area. Until recently when areas such as the Walla Walla Valley have gained national cachet, this has made it more difficult to drive enough tourism to allow large numbers of wineries to prosper and amenities to grow around them.
While many Washington wineries have obviously prospered despite this, recently, several emerging wine regions in the state have benefited from setting up shop in areas with built-in tourist industries. Specifically, wineries in the Columbia Gorge, Leavenworth, and Lake Chelan have been able to take advantage of these area’s massive levels of tourism to sell large percentages of wine directly out of the tasting room.
Although these wine regions are relatively young and the quality wines at of some of the wineries is spotty, wineries such as Syncline Wine Cellars, located in the Columbia Gorge, and Boudreaux Cellars, located in Leavenworth, have set the bar high and stand among the best wineries the state. Others seem likely to follow their lead.
Syncline Wine Cellars
Syncline Wine Cellars is the standard bearer in the Columbia Gorge. Located in Lyle, Washington, the winery sources fruit from a mixture of vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Columbia Gorge.
Syncline focuses largely on Rhone varietals. Each wine bears winemaker James Mantone’s distinctive style of vibrant fruit aromas and flavors. Reflective of Manton’s hands-off approach, grapes for most of Syncline’s wines are destemmed but not crushed before being pressed. The wines are subsequently aged in minimal amounts of new oak – between zero and ten percent for the wines reviewed below. The result is incredibly vibrant, deliciously fresh fruit flavors.
Among the Columbia Gorge AVA wines Syncline makes are perhaps Washington’s finest Pinot Noir (reviewed here) and what I believe may be the state’s only Grüner Veltliner (I write this only in hopes that someone will correct me and I will find another).
In addition to his work at Syncline Wine Cellars, Mantone is also one of the winemakers for the Grand Reve Vintners Collaboration Series wines.
Syncline Roussanne Horse Heaven Hills 2009 $22
Rating: + (Good) A pretty, moderately aromatic wine with light spices and scents of freshly spun cotton. The palate is evenly balanced with a rounded feel. 100% Roussanne. McKinley Springs (74%) and Alder Ridge (26%). Barrel fermented and aged in neutral French oak. 325 cases produced.
Syncline Subduction Red Columbia Valley 2009 $18
Rating: + (Good) Dusky spices, fresh, brambly berries, and light red fruit mark this pleasing, moderately aromatic wine. The palate is exceptionally clean with fresh strawberry fruit and umami flavors with barely a trace of oak showing through. For lovers of low oak wines, this is nirvana. 39% Mourvedre, 19% Counoise, 17% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 6% Cinsault, and 3% Carignan. Aged for 11 months in French oak (5-10% new). 1,488 Cases produced. Recommended
Syncline Grenache/Carignan Columbia Valley 2009 $20
Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) Somewhat dusty and aromatically quiet with light strawberries showing through along with mineral notes. The palate is dry and tart with a generous portion of clean fruit flavors. A little up front initially, this wine needs some time to full come into its own but offers ample rewards.
Syncline Cuvee Elena Columbia Valley 2008 $35
Rating: * (Excellent) Light herbal and floral notes mix with wild blueberries, raspberries, mineral notes, and a whiff of pepper. The palate is seamlessly stitched together with impeccable balance. Bright acidity and incredibly fresh, clean fruit flavors persist on and on long after the last sip. 48% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 10% Counoise, and 5% Cinsault. Northridge, Coyote Canyon, and McKinley Springs vineyards. Aged in 225L and 700L French oak (2nd and 3rd fill) for 16 months. 250 cases produced.
Syncline Cellars Grüner Veltliner Underwood Mountain Vineyard Columbia Gorge 2009 $20
Rating: * (Excellent) A complex but lightly aromatic wine with spice, straw, abundant mineral notes, a hint of tropical fruit, and beeswax. Mouthwatering acidity on the palate with a pleasing, textured mouthfeel. 100% Grüner Veltliner. Underwood Mountain. 12.5% alcohol. 125 cases produced.
The faux Bavarian village of Leavenworth, Washington is currently home to upwards of twenty wineries and tasting rooms. This area, part of Cascade Valley Wine Country, is a tourist boomtown with events occurring literally every weekend of the year.
Boudreaux Cellars – open by appointment – is the town’s flagship winery. Located along the scenic Icicle Creek Canyon, the winery is off the power grid. Winemaker Rob Newsom set up shop in Leavenworth due to his love of mountain climbing. Indeed, Icicle Creek Canyon contains some of Washington’s best rock climbing routes (‘Classic Crack’ is a short distance from the winery) and the area is in the shadow of the Stuart Range.
Newsom has a house style of gigantically big red wines. However, these are not the cocktail style wines many favor today. In fact, the alcohol levels of the Boudreaux wines are quite low by today’s standards, hovering around 13.5%. Rather, the Boudreaux wines’ enormity rests on the stiff scaffolding of tannins that surround the fruit. Even with a couple years of additional bottle age, these wines are colossal and call for a steak suitably big to sit alongside them.
Boudreaux Cellars Chardonnay Washington State 2008 $50
Rating: + (Good) Yellow in color with a touch of gold. The aromatics show mead, nuts, and oak spice on a somewhat unusual aroma profile. The palate has abundant nut flavors and a rounded, oak driven feel. 100% Chardonnay (80% Celilo, 20% Bishops vineyards). 13.3% alcohol. 200 cases produced.
Boudreaux Cellars Syrah Horse Heaven Hills 2006 $50
Rating: . (Decent) Dark in color. Aromatics show abundant floral notes, orange peel, and a light soapy note. The palate is tart with large amounts of umami flavors accented by acid. Tannins come off as a bit rough. 100% Syrah. Wallula Vineyard. 13.6% alcohol. 100 cases produced.
Boudreaux Cellars Merlot Washington State 2006 $40
Rating: * (Excellent) Dark in color. Aromatics are fairly quiet at present and are dominated by anise, dark cherries, and high-toned red fruit. The palate is gigantically big – almost brusque – with an army of tannins and dark fruit flavors. A big, chewy wine that draws all of the moisture out of your mouth. This is a wine that will go up against your biggest steak and win the battle. Give 2-3 years. 100% Merlot. Dionysus, Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, and Wallula vineyards. 13.4% alcohol. 200 cases produced.
Boudreaux Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Washington State 2006 $50
Rating: * (Excellent) Dark in color with aromas of cherry cola, medicine cabinet, and black tea. The palate is quite big, although more restrained than the 2006 Merlot, with firm tannins and modest alcohol. The fruit is dominated by black cherries. Give 2-3 years.
Boudreaux Cellars Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2006 $100
Rating: * (Excellent) Quiet on the nose with light herbal notes, high-toned cherry, and light licorice. A very pretty, nicely balanced wine that again is low in alcohol and reserved on the fruit profile with herbal accents. Slightly softer tannins than the regular Cabernet Sauvignon. Hangs around pleasantly on the finish. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Champoux and Loess vineyards. 13.5% alcohol. 200 cases produced.