WASHINGTON HAS ESTABLISHED itself as a region that embraces Bordeaux varieties. Cabernet sauvignon is the state’s dominant grape, and the Columbia Valley’s reputation for merlot helped put the state on the global wine stage in the 1980s.
Since Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley planted syrah in 1986, the state’s Rhône revolution has captured the imagination of winemakers and wine lovers, eventually leading to the advent of some of the state’s most exciting wines.
Among the most interesting wines are from the central Rhône Valley area known as “GSM,” shorthand for the three grapes of the blend: grenache, syrah and mourvedre. The three grapes are magical together, with grenache delivering brightness, acidity and loads of red fruit flavors; syrah bringing boldness and midpalate depth; and mourvedre providing depth, spiciness and complexity.
This is something I’ve noticed for years from GSM blends from Washington.
Winemaker Victor Palencia, whose namesake winery now has two locations in the Tri-Cities (Kennewick and West Richland), has been making this blend for years. In fact, he has been making it since he was a high schooler in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser, where he was a teenage wunderkind before heading to Walla Walla for college.
I think of Washington GSM blends as pretty close to a sure thing. When I first tasted the Palencia 2016 Casa Amarilla, I knew it would be a candidate for my wine of the year. I tasted it monthly over a six-month period, with each sip confirming my initial assessment.
For those interested, the winery often offers a three-year vertical of the GSM, which is a great way to taste its potential. This comes with an observation: I don’t think GSM blends or other Rhône reds tend to cellar well, as they often lack the acidity for the long haul. That said, Washington reds age well, so I’ll be interested to see how this ages.
These are my Top 25 wines from 2019. (Next week, we’ll reveal my 25 favorites for $20 and less).
1. Palencia Winery 2016 Casa Amarilla, Yakima Valley, $36: For a long time, I’ve found GSM blends to be among Washington’s most interesting Rhône-style wines, and this example from a Kennewick winery reveals why this style is so special here. Leading with a big dose of grenache, along with syrah and mourvedre, adds up to a spectacularly smooth and supple red loaded with complex notes of clove, red fruit and a hint of oak, backed with structure that relies on acidity rather than tannin. It all adds up to a wine built for food and enjoyment now rather than putting in the cellar.
2. DeLille Cellars 2016 Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $54: Big, rich spicy red crafted from Quintessence Vineyards grapes, this unusual blend from Bordeaux varieties on Red Mountain is delicious. I love malbec by itself, but this wine sells me on the idea of using it as a blender.
3. Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2017 Phinny Hill Vineyard Carménère, Horse Heaven Hills, $32: This winery in Lewiston, Idaho, comes to Washington for these grapes, and winemaker Coco Umiker relies on fruit from the Lewis-Clark Valley, as well as a few tons from Washington. Once again, she reveals a deft touch with this obscure Bordeaux variety. It is loaded with purple fruit, including huckleberry, blackberry and bright blueberry, all backed with bright acids and firm tannins. A delicious and collectible wine.
4. Quilceda Creek Vintners 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $200: Everything one would expect from one of the country’s top reds, with rich aromas and flavors of cassis, plum, blackberry, vanilla and spice, backed with bright acidity and firm tannins. This is going to gain in complexity over the next decade.
5. Leonetti Cellar 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $120: Among Washington’s most collectible wines, this lives up to the lofty reputation, thanks to complex aromas of blackberry, plum, vanilla and spice, followed by intense flavors of black fruit backed by bright acidity and supple tannins. This wine will continue to soar for the next decade and age gracefully for a couple more past that.
6. Klipsun 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $150: This entry into Washington’s premium wine category is nothing short of spectacular, thanks to loads of plum, blackberry, black currants and dark chocolate, all backed by bright acidity. This vineyard’s famous tannins are supple and pliable. A collectible, cellar-worthy wine that lines up well with Washington’s best reds.
7. Thurston Wolfe Winery 2015 Zephyr Ridge Vineyard Petite Sirah, Horse Heaven Hills, $20: I’m a huge fan of petite sirah, and the Northwest style tends to not be as huge and domineering as those I collect from Napa/Sonoma. This offering from a top Prosser winery fits that style, with bigger black fruit and molasses flavors and less aggressive structure. This is built and priced for regular enjoyment.
8. Woodward Canyon Winery 2016 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington, $99: Here in Washington, we are blessed with many great cabs, and this is among our state’s classics, thanks to notes of black currants, blackberry, vanilla, clove and more, all perfectly balanced with right-on acidity and firm, yet pliable, tannins. This is one of the state’s most collectible and cellar-able wines.
9. Wautoma Springs Winery 2016 Inky Reserve Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $48: I adore malbec from around the globe, and this example is a dead ringer for the best I’ve tasted from Mendoza. It’s loaded with aromas and flavors of dense black fruit, spices, molasses and blackberry cobbler. Its structure is built on acidity rather than tannins, which easily invites a second glass.
10. Mosquito Fleet Winery 2011 Griffersen Reserve, Columbia Valley, $50: This port-style dessert wine from a winery in Belfair is a dead ringer for a well-aged Portuguese port, loaded with aromas and flavors of dark-chocolate sauce, golden raisins and chai spices. It’s loaded with textures that lead to a big, warm finish.
11. Maryhill Winery 2016 Proprietor’s Reserve Syrah, Columbia Valley, $38: Washington syrah can be big and bold. This example from one of the state’s top producers is also sensual and approachable, with notes of ripe plum; Baker’s chocolate; blackberry pie; and round, rich tannins.
12. Pondera Winery 2016 Stillwater Creek Vineyard GSM, Columbia Valley, $42: Another delicious Rhône blend, this is from a boutique winery in Woodinville. Succulent aromas of white pepper, ripe plum and French vanilla are backed by bright acidity and bold tannins.
13. Tsillan Cellars 2016 Estate Reserve Malbec, Lake Chelan, $42: From the south shore of Lake Chelan comes this blockbuster malbec, loaded with notes of plum, blueberry, blackberry, dark chocolate shavings and complex spices. All backed by bright acidity and supple tannins.
14. Cascade Cliffs Vineyard & Winery 2017 Petite Sirah, Wahluke Slope, $60: A winery with tasting rooms in the Gorge and Seattle has crafted a big, bold petite sirah that competes with examples from Northern California. It’s loaded with massive, ripe black fruit, and backed by tannins that require grilled steak to tame.
15. Kiona Vineyards 2018 Estate Chenin Blanc Ice Wine, Red Mountain, $50: You won’t find many wines like this outside of British Columbia, home to great ice wines. This example from a Red Mountain pioneer features succulent flavors of ripe pear, dried mango, honey and complex spiciness that gives way to a succulent finish.
16. Westport Winery 2017 Elephant Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rattlesnake Hills, $48: Spicy aromas of ripe plum, cassis, black fruit and black pepper, dense and bold. A stylish red that will only gain complexity with time in the cellar.
17. Thurston Wolfe Winery 2018 Albariño, Yakima Valley, $18: This Spanish variety grows well in Washington, and makes a delicious white wine that is trending up with winemakers. This example is a good argument for more. Aromas of apples, lemon zest, orange blossoms and spices are backed by bright acidity. This is a perfect wine for crabcakes.
18. Maryhill Winery 2016 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, $27: Winemaker Richard Batchelor reveals a deft touch with this tricky Bordeaux variety that can often exhibit herbal notes. He’s managed to tame it in a way that highlights the variety’s complexity and suppleness.
19. Abeja 2015 Heather Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $68: It’s hard not to wax poetic about this cab, thanks to the layers of complexity and flavors of blackberry, plum, dark chocolate and cassis, all backed with plush, velvety tannins.
20. Canvasback 2016 Grand Passage Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $40: A big, bold cab from a Napa Valley producer with a Washington brand, this is loaded with plush aromas of dark chocolate, plum, blackberry pie, clove and a hint of smoke, all backed by velvety structure. A dangerously delicious red.
21. Amelia Wynn Winery 2015 Kiona Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Red Mountain, $32: This Bainbridge Island winery crafts this delicious red from grapes grown by Red Mountain pioneers. Black fruit, including blackberry, plum and black currants, mingles with classic notes of dried herbs and mild oak. It’s all backed with bright acidity that lifts the fruit along with supple tannins.
22. Vino la Monarcha 2016 Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $24: Laden with smoky plum, black pepper, dark chocolate and black licorice, this malbec’s structure is based on acidity rather than tannins, making this example a dead ringer for a high-elevation Uco Valley malbec from Argentina — with a price to match.
23. Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2016 Winemaker’s Reserve Syrah, Umpqua Valley, $42: Big, rich Northwest syrah with rich aromas of plum sauce, black pepper, ripe blackberries and hints of smoky vanilla. A classic example from a top Northwest winemaker.
24. Northwest Cellars 2015 Petit Verdot, Red Mountain, $48: In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate this Bordeaux variety as I’ve come to understand it better. Typically a bold wine, PV rivals petite sirah for structure, while also loading up on black fruit, including blackberry, plum and cassis. This is a variety I’ve overlooked, but this example has grabbed my attention.
25. Upchurch Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $75: There’s something sensual and provocative about this bold wine made with estate grapes. This is loaded with aromas of black currants, plum, Baker’s chocolate and blackberry, with hints of vanilla and a whisper of smoke.