2015 Vintage Earns Raves in Washington

Grapes ripened early yet retained good balance between fruit flavors and acidity

by Peter Mitham
Grapes await harvesting in the Red Mountain area of Washington.

Benton City, Wash.—With vines settling in for a long winter’s nap across the Northwest, winemakers in Washington state are giving high marks to the 2015 vintage.

Hot, dry weather with cool conditions at just the right moments proved ideal, and the resulting wines are already showing a blend of power and elegance that promise to rank them among the decade’s most prized.

Just five years ago, winemakers were grappling with high acid wines and difficult growing conditions on the heels of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. This year, a warm winter and early spring gave vines a jump start that culminated in the earliest ever harvest across the Northwest and grapes that were — to the surprise of many — largely in balance. "We were ahead of normal pick dates by about two weeks, [but] the weather at harvest was kind," observed Brian Rudin, winemaker for Canvasback, which is the Washington winery of California's Duckhorn Wine Co. "It made for great balance and freshness in the grapes, with ripe tannin and mature flavors. The pleasantness continued all through harvest, without a single upsetting weather event."

Rudin is particularly impressed with how the weather treated Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for 75% of Canvasback’s 20 acres on Red Mountain (the remainder is planted to Merlot). The winery’s own vines continue to progress nicely, though they won’t begin bearing till 2016, but other vineyards in the area yielded exceptional fruit.

"I was worried about excessive heat and drought stress on vines," he told Wines & Vines, noting that Canvasback’s location on a southwest-facing slope of Red Mountain is particularly hot. "But frankly, the weather evened out very nicely by mid-August, as we approached harvest."

Great year for Cabernet
Cabernet Sauvignon measured up elsewhere in the Yakima Valley AVA, too, with Justin Neufeld, winemaker for Gilbert Cellars in Yakima, Wash., saying that fruit throughout the valley ripened in concert and with fruit flavors balanced by acidity. "Ripening was pretty homogenous throughout," he said. "Red Mountain fruit, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, was coming off at the same time as fruit out of the Zillah area. It felt like we had these big heat waves, followed by longer than average ‘cool’ systems that allowed the fruit to catch up physiologically." 

The proof is now in the tank, with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties showing slightly better than their Rhone counterparts. "I saw great extraction in color and nice ripe tannin content," Neufeld told Wines & Vines.

Rudin had equal praise for the tannins in the fruit Canvasback received, crediting the weather for allowing the fruit to mature without incident. "We were able to achieve the right kind of hang time, where tannins have time to achieve depth and polish, without overheating or raisining," he said. "With heat, you can generate powerful tannins with a lot of intensity, with bold flavors. And, with the kind of cool fall conditions we saw, you gain the time to temper that strength with elegance."

What he’s tasting in the tank impresses him, and promises a worthy follow to Canvasback’s initial release last fall of a wine from the 2012 vintage made with fruit from the Klipsun, La Coye, Shaw and Quintessence vineyards. "Tannins are deep and finely-grained," Rudin said. "But still, mouthfeel is bright with surprising freshness. The wines are already displaying great evolution, without any tendencies toward overripeness."

New acreage fared well
With rave reviews like that, Barry Olivier, president of Canada’s Aquilini Brands, is optimistic regarding the fruit from 300 acres of vines his company planted this past spring. Weather conditions didn’t harm the vines, and in any event, the Kennewick Irrigation District’s newly installed irrigation system worked like a charm. “No hiccups to report at this time,” Olivier told Wines & Vines.

The spring’s plantings included 11 different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah vines thrown in for good measure. A few acres were — unusual for Washington — grafted onto rootstock on a trial basis.

While it will be some time before Aquilini harvests grapes from its own plantings, Olivier echoed Neufeld and Rudin in praising what this year’s harvest delivered from the Klipsun, Vinagium, Hedges, and Blackwood Canyon properties. "Cabernet Sauvignon appears to be the star in 2015," he said. "The wines are deep in flavor and have excellent concentration/body coupled with very ripe tannins."

Olivier is looking forward to planting on Aquilini’s remaining 390 acres in spring 2016, while the slightly more than 400 cases of wine made to date in 2014 and 2015 by winemaker Philippe Melka continue to mature.

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