Last summer, Eric Degerman came upon an idea of a tasting that would help gauge where Washington state Malbec stands on the global wine stage. That led to an epic tasting that pitted the best of Washington against top examples from Argentina.
It was so much fun, we decided to do it again, this time putting up four Cabernet Sauvignons from Washington against top examples from California. In September, I approached Mike Dunne, a longtime friend who is the wine columnist for The Sacramento Bee. The idea was that he would pick the California wines, I would pick the Washington wines and we would hold a blind judging when we were in California in January for the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
We were soon joined by Dan Berger, longtime California syndicated wine writer and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times. We decided to narrow the tasting to three specific appellations: the Horse Heaven Hills in Washington, Napa Valley and Sonoma County. (Read more about the results of this judging Tuesday in Part 2 of this story.)
Eric and I could have chosen any number of appellations in Washington, including Red Mountain, the Wahluke Slope or the Walla Walla Valley. All would have represented the state quite well. However, we are pretty intrigued by the Horse Heaven Hills, and we also wanted to put the spotlight on this region that is little known outside of the state (the appellation was approved in 2005).
Horse Heaven Hills leads Washington wine growth
Today, the Horse Heaven Hills is the largest region of growth in Washington wine, thanks to an explosion of vineyard plantings in the past decade. Cabernet Sauvignon is leading this because of such growers as Rob Andrews (McKinley Springs), Mike Andrews (Coyote Canyon), Rob Mercer (Mercer) and others, most of whom are selling the vast majority of their fruit to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
The Horse Heaven Hills is a fascinating region, a 570,000-square-mile swath of arid land south of the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities. It is bordered by the Columbia River both to the east and south and is well known for a variety of agricultural crops dating back more than 100 years.
While Dunne and Berger planned to select the wines that would represent their regions, we decided to take a bit more democratic approach: We alerted grape growers in the Horse Heaven Hills and winemakers around the state and asked them to submit any Cabernet Sauvignon that carried the Horse Heaven Hills as its American Viticultural Area on the label. The result was 24 wines, which we tasted under blind conditions.
Horse Heaven Hills Cab judging
Our panel included Coke Roth, a Kennewick, Wash., attorney and one of the most respected wine judges in the United States; Ken Robertson, a longtime wine writer, judge and journalist; Justin Michaud, a longtime Washington winemaker who last year began making wine for Coyote Canyon Winery in Prosser; and Dr. Richard Larsen, a research winemaker for Washington State University.
Of the 24 wines we judged, seven earned our top “Outstanding” rating, 14 received an impressive “Excellent” rating, and three got a “Recommended” rating. None of the wines was deemed unacceptable – a somewhat rare occurrence for a group this size.
Below are our reviews of the top seven “Outstanding” wines in their order of finish. The first four made the trip with us to California (check back Tuesday for those results).
- Januik Winery 2010 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $55: Mike Januik, former head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, has been making wine in Washington since the 1980s and is an expert at finding the finest vineyards in the state. For this wine, he collaborated with Paul Champoux, arguably the top grape grower in Washington – and one of the best along the West Coast. The result is this beautiful Cab with aromas of chocolate, walnut, plum and black cherry, followed by rich flavors of blue and black fruit, coffee, dark chocolate and intriguing underlying spices. It’s all backed with rich tannins and a long, persistent finish. (14.4% alc.)
- Den Hoed Wine Estates 2009 Andreas Wallula Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $80: The den Hoed family is one of the top grape growers in Washington. Brothers Andy and Bill den Hoed planted Wallula Vineyards (now called The Benches). It is certainly one of the most dramatic vineyards anywhere, as the vines are planted on outcroppings in the basalt cliffs above the Columbia River as it flows between Washington and Oregon in the eastern Horse Heaven Hills. Allen Shoup, former CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and now owner of Long Shadows Vintners, is a major partner with the den Hoeds in the vineyard, and they also collaborated with him and his winemaker, Gilles Nicault, to produce this wine. It offers aromas of black walnut, spice, black pepper, plum and huckleberry, followed by rich, gorgeous flavors of graphite, blueberry, blackberry and plum. It’s all backed by tannins that manage to present themselves as big and elegant at the same time. (14.5% alc.)
- Alder Ridge 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $30: This Cab, one of the higher-end bottlings from Precept Wine in Seattle, comes from estate grapes in the southern Horse Heaven Hills, the highly regarded Alder Ridge Vineyard (a favorite among many winemakers around the state). Planting began in 1997 and now spans more than 800 acres. The vines stretch to benches that range nearly to the Columbia River west of Paterson and south of the equally tiny community of Alderdale. This is a gorgeous and beautifully balanced red with aromas of dark chocolate, coffee and black fruit. The luscious flavors of ripe plum, blackberry and black currant are supported by an undercurrent of vanilla, black pepper and exotic spice. (14.5% alc.)
- Double Canyon 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $45: Double Canyon is a new winery project from Pine Ridge Vineyards, one of Napa Valley’s most famous producers (the group also includes Archery Summit in Oregon’s Dundee Hills; both wineries were launched by the late Gary Andrus). The Double Canyon vineyard produces 84 acres of red wine grapes adjacent to famed Champoux Vineyards near Alderdale. The land was purchased in 2007, and this is the first release of Cabernet Sauvignon from the site. This gorgeous red opens with aromas of fresh cedar, black cherry, a whiff of mint and a hint of crushed herbs. On the palate, it opens with bold flavors of purple plum, huckleberry, blackberry and dark chocolate. The tannins manage to be rich without getting in the way of the ample fruit, and the finish is lengthy and impressive. Considering this is the first wine off young vines, we see stunning potential for this site and winery. (14.5% alc.)
- H/H Estates 2009 Reserve Big John Cab, Horse Heaven Hills, $42: The Andrews family has a lengthy history of farming in the Horse Heaven Hills that dates back before World War II. Mike Andrews began planting wine grapes (in lieu of his longtime cattle operation) in 1994, supplying superb red wine grapes to Columbia Crest, Northstar and other Ste. Michelle properties. His own winery in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser helps to put the spotlight on his superior grapes. This gorgeous Cab opens with aromas of walnut, plum, black pepper and blueberry. On the palate, it reveals elegant flavors of blackberry, blueberry, cherry and chocolate, all backed by focused and supple tannins that give way to a long finish. (14.3% alc.)
- Mercer Estates 2009 Spice Cabinet Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $30: Rob Mercer, owner of Mercer Estates in Prosser, began planting Spice Cabinet Vineyard in a bowl overlooking the Columbia River in 2005. The vineyard is so named because he planted, seemingly, a bit of everything. Starting with the 2008 vintage, Mercer began making vineyard-designated reds from the site – all of which have been remarkably consistent at an extremely high level. This example is no exception, revealing aromas of fresh-roasted coffee beans, dark chocolate, cedar, strawberry, black cherry and appealing sweet oak spices. On the palate, it shows off generous flavors of cherry, chocolate and mint backed by plush, velvety tannins and backed with intriguing notes of minerality and slate. Everything is in perfect harmony. (15.3% alc.)
- Robert Karl Cellars 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $30: Joseph Gunselman, a longtime Spokane winemaker and physician, has long been enamored with the Horse Heaven Hills, so much so that he and his wife, Rebecca, planted Gunselman Bench Vineyard a few years ago. This beautiful Cab uses estate grapes, as well as fruit from nearby Phinny Hill and McKinley Springs. The resulting wine is as intriguing as it is beautiful, with aromas of black olive, oak, black plum, raisin, spice and a hint of dustiness. On the palate, it is a rich, juicy red with ample up-front dark fruit, including ripe plum, blackberry and black cherry, all backed by well-integrated oak and bold tannins. (14.3% alc.)