CLIMATE CHANGE HAS worked in favor of Josh Lawrence, who finds it rather delicious to revisit the time a vineyard expert told him the Royal Slope of Washington’s Columbia Basin was too cold to produce award-winning wine.
This year’s No. 1 wine serves as more validation — the Gård Vintners 2017 Lawrence Vineyards estate malbec, a marvelous expression of the red grape native to the Bordeaux region of France that Argentina has taken to another level.
It was in 1999 when the Lawrence family got serious about planting wine grapes near the town of Royal City. They met with Rich Wheeler, who enjoyed a 30-year career with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates overseeing vineyards before retiring in 2010.
“I’ve given Rich a hard time about this many times, but he said, ‘You are too far north. You are going to frost out about every fourth year,’ ” Lawrence recalls with a chuckle.
Undaunted, the Lawrence family went on to plant more than 450 acres of vines in this region that the federal government officially recognized in 2020 as worthy of its own American Viticultural Area — the Royal Slope.
- Gård Vintners 2017 Lawrence Vineyards estate malbec, Columbia Valley, $40: The Lawrence family used French oak, concrete and stainless steel to help create tones of dark cherry and spiced plum bathed in juiciness and supple tannins. “I get excited about planting malbec,” Lawrence says. “If it’s not syrah, then it’s malbec that I think has the most potential in this state.”
- Telaya Wine Co. 2018 syrah, Snake River Valley, $34: Boise-area winemaker Earl Sullivan works with famous vineyards in Washington, but he pulls this stately syrah from the volcanic soils of Sawtooth Vineyard in Idaho.
- DeLille Cellars 2018 Harrison Hill 25th Vintage Red Wine, Snipes Mountain, $105: Cabernet sauvignon, planted in 1962, drives this stylish Bordeaux red blend with a structure that Woodinville winemaker Jason Gorski turns into an utterly complete wine.
- Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2019 Phinny Hill Vineyard carménère, Washington, $32: Year after year, Idaho talent Coco Umiker crafts these Horse Heaven Hills grapes into arguably the Northwest’s most seamless example of this fascinatingly herbal Bordeaux red.
- Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2019 Eroica riesling, Columbia Valley, $20: Bob Bertheau’s penultimate teamwork with German icon Ernst Loosen remains the American standard for this noble white grape that’s all about dusty Granny Smith apple, peach blossom and refreshing limeade.
- Abeja 2020 chardonnay, Washington, $45: Amy Alvarez-Wampfler developed a passion for chardonnay during her days at Columbia Crest, and she and her husband, Daniel Wampfler, work with estate fruit and famed sites Celilo and Conner Lee for this charming example of America’s favorite wine.
- Cinder Wines 2020 cinsault rosé, Snake River Valley, $23: Idaho’s flair with Rhône varieties takes a brilliant Provence approach in the hands of Boise native Melanie Krause, who seems to have a Midas touch with every lot in her cellar.
- Öömrang 2020 estate siegerrebe, Puget Sound, $75: Yes; that’s $75 a bottle, not $15, but winemaker/distiller Christine Stoecklein, mentored by family from Germany, achieves victory while overlooking Camano Island with this gorgeously dry example that’s redolent of pink grapefruit, jasmine and lavender.
- Echolands Winery 2019 Rivière Galets Vineyard grenache, Walla Walla Valley, $38: Kansas City’s Doug Frost, a rare breed as both a Master of Wine and master sommelier, launched his own label in Walla Walla and made a big splash with grenache.
- Mosquito Fleet Winery 2018 petit verdot, Horse Heaven Hills, $38: Brian Petersen, a chiropractor near Hood Canal, knows just how to muscle this brawny Bordeaux red grape into a supple expression of cherries and chocolate.
- Arenness Cellars 2018 DuBrul Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $44: One of Washington’s famous sites provides the foundation for Portland vintner Robert Bailey to produce a cab loaded with black plum, cassis, savory earthiness and mocha.
- Domaine Serene 2018 Evenstad Reserve pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $80: The late Ken Evenstad, a native of Minnesota, brought a sense of luxury to Oregon’s wine industry, and his flagship pinot noir consistently ranks among the world’s best.
- Sawtooth Winery 2019 Classic Fly Series GSM, Snake River Valley, $48: Seattle-based Precept gives Meredith Smith the freedom in Idaho to blend grenache, syrah and mourvèdre into a super silky, blue-fruited expression of a Côtes du Rhône.
- Wautoma Springs 2020 sauvignon blanc, Columbia Valley, $17: While she has earned fame with malbec, Jessica Munnell repeatedly wins gold medals for her work with this white Bordeaux that’s a zippy offering of melon, lime and sweet herbs.
- Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2019 estate selection Hefeabzug grüner veltliner, Umpqua Valley, $26: The American guru of grüner uses the Austrian reference for surlie aging to distinguish this bottling from his other citrus-laden examples.
- L’Ecole N° 41 Winery 2019 Stillwater Creek Vineyard sèmillon, Columbia Valley, $21: Walla Walla’s famous schoolhouse continues to hold class on how beautiful the often-overlooked lemony white Bordeaux can be in our corner of the world.
- Argyle Winery 2016 Knudsen Vineyard brut, Dundee Hills, $50: This famous bubble house remains deliciously tied to the 50-year-old vineyard that’s depicted on Oregon’s wine-themed license plate.
- Brian Carter Cellars 2016 Opulento, Yakima Valley, $24: Brian Carter’s Washington state license plate reads “BLENDS,” and this rich mélange of touriga naçional, tinta roriz, souzão and tinta cão should drive any lover of Port-style wines to his tasting rooms in Woodinville or Vancouver, Washington.
- Tipsy Canyon Winery 2019 merlot, Lake Chelan, $38: The planting of merlot at Amos Rome Vineyard helped launch the Chelan Valley wine industry in 1998, and Boeing retiree Mark Garvin has quickly earned a reputation for crafting approachable reds.
- Maryhill Winery 2019 viognier, Columbia Valley, $19: While others have abandoned this white Rhône grape, Craig Leuthold and winemaker Richard Batchelor continue to showcase its charming notes of orange Creamsicle, pineapple and melon.