Editor’s Note: This is the first of our annual two-part series on top Northwest wines. Next week, our list will focus on the best wines for under $20.
BECAUSE 2020 IS the year of the pivot, here’s a different approach to our top Northwest Wine of the Year: reaching for something quite the opposite of a bold red — the DeLille Cellars 2019 Chaleur Blanc.
The Woodinville producer has been a regular on The Seattle Times’ annual list in recent years, but not for its white wine program. Vintage after vintage, the Chaleur Blanc is a sophisticated standout. This year, it stands atop as the most delicious and compelling wine I’ve tasted.
During this never-ending stretch of depressing news and subsequent doom-scrolling, I’ve found myself not wanting to think as much about tannin structure, particularly when there’s shellfish on the menu.
On this list are five blended wines. Consumers in the United States have become comfortable with nonvarietal bottlings because they recognize blended wines provide the winemaker with the freedom to chase balance or age-worthiness. When a wine offers both qualities, that’s magic in the glass.
For 2020, the list was limited to the top 20. And it doesn’t include wines from our friends in British Columbia, because the wines are next to impossible to obtain with our border closed.
1. DeLille Cellars 2019 Chaleur Blanc, Columbia Valley, $35: In 1995, this Woodinville winery’s founders declared, “The world has plenty of chardonnay,” so they chose to pay homage to Bordeaux by blending sauvignon blanc and sèmillon. Jason Gorski is dialed in on three famous vineyards — Boushey, Klipsun and Sagemoor — to produce more than 200 lots, most of them fermented in new French oak barrels. The mouthfeel is charming, as lemon curd and orange marmalade pick up a dusting of white pepper and a spray of lime oil. Enjoy with pumpkin bisque, grilled chicken, scallops or crab.
2. L’Ecole Nº 41 Winery 2017 Ferguson Vineyard estate red wine, Walla Walla Valley, $64: A sign of terroir from Marty Clubb’s prized planting in fractured basalt near Milton-Freewater, Ore., hints at iron shavings in the nose, and the blend steered by cabernet sauvignon is deliciously dark, extracted and built for now — as well as a couple of decades.
3. Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2018 Eroica riesling, Columbia Valley, $20: Seattle native Bob Bertheau and German icon Ernst Loosen developed the quintessential riesling for the American consumer. It’s neither dry nor sweet, with notes of orchard and citrus fruit — an ideal foil for seafood and Asian-inspired fare.
4. Alloro Vineyard 2017 estate pinot noir, Chehalem Mountains, $40: In this era of sometimes-paunchy examples of pinot noir from Oregon, Tom Fitzpatrick crafts the fruit from owner/grower David Nemarnik into a bowl of raspberries and red currants that’s supple and savory with notes of sage and white pepper.
5. Tulpen Cellars 2016 Tokar Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $42: Kenny Hart’s talent extends beyond the vines he manages for several of Walla Walla’s top producers. Here’s a gorgeous and complex cab under his own tiny brand. It’s reminiscent of dark strawberry and creamy cherry backed by velvety tannins, a pinch of mint and a fleck of graphite.
6. Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2018 Phinny Hill Vineyard carménère, Washington, $32: Coco Umiker in Lewiston, Idaho, pulls her carm from this prized site in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills, and she continues to set the standard for the Northwest. Expect a deliciously full, round and intense example of this fascinatingly herbal red Bordeaux variety that was thought to be extinct until 1994, when a French researcher stumbled upon it in Chile.
7. Elephant Seven 2018 Yellow Bird Vineyard Grenache, Walla Walla Valley, $30: This often crowd-pleasing grape native to the Rhône Valley in France is highly coveted by Washington winemakers, and Walla Walla’s Joshua West could/should charge more for the wine he makes with grapes from Seattle physicians Gregory and Darlene Chan.
8. Cinder Wines 2019 46 Brix riesling ice wine, Snake River Valley, $50: Ste. Michelle alum Melanie Krause continues to raise the bar in her native Idaho, and this remarkable dessert wine is on par with the best from British Columbia, redolent of apricot glacéed, crème brûlée, jasmine and nutmeg.
9. Telaya Wine Co. 2018 Turas Journey red wine, Snake River Valley, $34: Year after year, Earl Sullivan’s syrah-based blend ranks among the Northwest’s best. It’s reminiscent of blackberry, plum, cured meat and herbs, as its well-managed tannin structure adds up to a smooth finish.
10. Woodward Canyon Winery 2019 chardonnay, Washington State, $44: On the Mount Rushmore of Walla Walla producers, there’s Rick Small, who also has been a guiding light in the Northwest for food-friendly chardonnay and a lingerie approach to French oak. A continuation of its clean and classic style, the theme is of dusty Bosc pear, apricot compote, light butterscotch and lemon bar.
11. King Estate Winery 2018 Domaine pinot gris, Willamette Valley, $29: The “Kings of Pinot” rely on their certified biodynamic vineyard — the largest in the United States — for this reserve offering from the program that made Oregon pinot gris famous, particularly in Florida, where they haul in seafood.
12. SMAK Wines 2019 Spring Rosé of Sangiovese, Walla Walla Valley, $18: Fiona Mak’s young project at the Walla Walla incubator produces only three styles of rosé, and none is a pink wine. Instead, there’s a pulse of Montmorency cherry juice, kiwi and melon for a bright drink that pairs with sushi or fried and spicy fare.
13. Northwest Cellars 2015 Corvus Vineyard petite sirah, Red Mountain, $36: Those turned off by the massive tannins and high alcohol often associated with PS will find neither in Robert Delf’s drink of blackberry jam, black cherry compote and a flavorsome structure of espresso tannins.
14. Dunham Cellars 2017 Trutina red wine, Columbia Valley, $29: This time, Robert Campisi favored merlot over cabernet sauvignon in the superb blend for this family-owned winery that recently raised a glass to its 25 years of business. Tones of ripe huckleberry and marionberry get a rub of lavender as layers unfold.
15. Abacela Winery 2014 estate Port, Umpqua Valley, $48: No one in the Northwest matches Earl Jones’ devotion to Iberian Peninsula varieties, and this fortified dessert wine from Southern Oregon is dense, fruit-forward, fresh and complex with dark purple fruit, sweet herbs and nuttiness.
16. Vino la Monarcha 2018 malbec, Columbia Valley, $24: Wunderkind winemaker Victor Palencia captures much of what malbec has to offer in Washington, with blackberry and plum, a sense of earthiness, silky tannins and a juicy blueberry finish.
17. Tertulia Cellars 2017 Rivière Galets estate vineyard Great SchisM reserve red wine, Walla Walla Valley, $45: Feds wouldn’t allow Walla Walla winemaker Ryan Raber to put “GSM” on the label of this bottling of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, but it’s there.
18. Dusted Valley Vintners 2017 Stained Tooth syrah, Columbia Valley, $36: These two families from Wisconsin call their wine club “The Stained Tooth Society,” and their sweet spot for syrah — StoneTree Vineyard on the sultry Wahluke Slope — will task any dental hygienist. It’s inky and tasty, as blackberry and black cherry swish around sandy tannins that are trailed by cocoa powder and earthiness.
19. Archery Summit 2016 Arcus Vineyard pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $125: It was a stellar vintage for the Willamette Valley, and this bottling represents the winemaking transition from Chris Mazepink to Ian Burch with a theme of marionberry jam, blueberry juice and plum skins.
20. Wit Cellars 2019 Unleashed rosé sparkling wine, Columbia Valley, $28: Yakima Valley winemakers Flint Nelson and Cat Warwick used syrah to create a delectably dry and lively package that bubbles with hints of golden raspberries, pie cherry and orange zest with a nip of baking spice in the finish.