What is it that makes cabernet sauvignon Washington’s reigning grape?
Cabernet sauvignon is known among winemakers and viticulturists worldwide as the king of grapes because of its rich aroma and flavor, high tannin levels in the skins and immense depth.
Washington state has become a kingdom ruled by cab in recent years, with a record-high harvest of 71,100 tons in fall 2016. That’s more than the total number of all varieties of grapes produced statewide in 1999.
Washington state cabernet sauvignon wines have become known around the world as an excellent quality-to-price value. “Comparing Washington, Napa, Bordeaux and Italy, our cabs are the most affordable, in part because our land is less expensive,” says Rob Bigelow, master sommelier and senior director of education and on-premise development at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. “Plus, Washington has the highest percentage of cabs that have scored 90 points or above in wine publications. That combination is unbeatable.”
So, what is it that makes cabernet sauvignon Washington’s reigning grape?
Perfect storm of growing conditions
“We are blessed with a perfect storm of growing conditions that cabernet sauvignon thrives on,” Bigelow says. “Washington cabs are known for their mouth-watering ripeness, but the counterpoint to that is a fantastic natural acidity and firm tannins that gives us balanced, food-friendly wines with depth and complexity.”
Eastern Washington is home to some of best growing regions in the country for cabernet sauvignon grapes: Horse Heaven Hills and the Wahluke slope in the Columbia Valley, and Red Mountain in the Yakima Valley.
These are some of the warmest areas of the state during the day, and the nights are cool. This range of temperatures, along with the sandy soil and lack of rainfall, result in beautifully pronounced tannins.
Blending: The wizardry of winemaking
Blending different lots of wine and testing how they react together is one of the most important things that a winemaker does, but it’s not as simple as you might think. This is particularly true with the depth of flavors that come out while blending cabernet sauvignon grapes. There’s a reason Ray McKee, head red winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, calls blending the wizardry of winemaking.
“Maybe wine ‘A’ has a bright cherry aroma and wine ‘B’ was aged in new French oak and has a lot of spice and structure,” McKee says. “If blending was a matter of simple addition, you would get spicy bright fruit character. But this is more like complex calculus. Combining the two lots may bring to the top aromas and flavors that couldn’t be detected separately: bright cherry, vanilla, licorice.”
A blending session for Canoe Ridge Estate cabernet sauvignon might start with 40 individual lots and be pared down to 13 lots in the final blend. Artistic decisions are made about the flavors the winemakers want to highlight, the level of tannin, and the personality of the wine. That’s where the magic happens.