The proliferation of new wineries in Washington State has slowed in the past couple of years, but the landscape today is radically different from even 15 years ago. As recently as the early 1990s the Washington wine scene was dominated by a few large players who also owned a high percentage of planted vineyard land. Today, most of the excitement is being generated by small, quality-minded wineries, and the industrial-scale producers are mostly competing at the low end of the market.
Cabernet and Merlot are Washington's most serious and successful varieties, with Syrah rapidly increasing in popularity thanks to the efforts of some talented newcomers. Red wine is generally growing as a percentage of total production of premium wines, even if Riesling still has considerable commercial importance.
Most of Washington's grapes are grown in the desert east of the Cascade mountains, in the Columbia and Yakima River Valleys, where annual rainfall is so low that the vineyards must be irrigated. The vines in Washington benefit from long daylight hours during the summer, and a longer growing season than California (grapes are usually picked well into October). Although daytime temperatures can be quite hot, frequently surpassing 100 degrees, generally cool September nights allow the grapes to retain healthy acidity, resulting in wines with noteworthy intensity of varietal character. The greatest threat to grape-growing in Washington is winter frost, which can sometimes be severe enough to kill vines, as it did during the winters of 1996 and 2004.
Chenin Blanc Facts
From crisp, acidic and dry to acidic, staggeringly rich, and sweet
Known in the Anjou and Touraine districts of the Loire Valley as the Pineau de la Loire, the Chenin Blanc grape lends itself to an extraordinary range of styles, from bracing, bone-dry Savennieres and Vouvrays (there is also a sparkling version), to medium-dry or demi-sec, wines, to some of the world's most staggeringly rich late-harvest wines made in years that benefit from the arrival of botrytis. general characteristics of Chenin Blanc include citrus fruits, peach, pear, apple, and quince; spring flowers and honeysuckle; occasionally a lanolin/wet wool element; and assertive mineral and earthy notes, sometimes reminiscent of fresh, sweet mushrooms.
Chenin Blancs in both dry and sweet styles are noted for their longevity -- especially those from Vouvray. The very sweetest bottlings from Chenin Blanc are among the longest-lived nonfortified wines in the world. Note that, compared to Sauternes for example, sweet wines from the Loire Valley are lower in alcohol, higher in acidity, and dominated by the aromas and flavors of fruit rather than oak barrels.