As Washington has come into its own as a wine source worth following, consumers have appreciated the state's prevailing style of clear, pure flavors balanced against refreshing acidity and supple textures. Now that I have tasted the majority of the 2009 vintage, what strikes me is how many wines are much more tannic than usual.
Often, when I find a tannic wine in my blind tastings of Washington reds, the bag comes off to reveal a wine from Red Mountain. The sub-AVA in the southeast corner of Yakima Valley is famous for its biting tannins (although some producers seem able to tame them). This time around, I'm finding obtrusive tannins in wines from every part of Washington's Columbia Valley, home to nearly all of the state's good vineyards.
Looking through my notes, I see quite a few phrases such as "gritty tannins," "crunchy tannins," "dark and dense," "firm and spicy," and other indications of rough texture. There's nothing wrong with that in a wine made for the cellar, but it can take decades for wines with this level of tannins to resolve.
It's not as if every 2009 bites back with its tannins. The very best wines of the vintage show their signature suppleness, polish and velvety textures. It's puzzling how often the same producer ended up with both tannic and nicely textured wines, even from the same subregion.
For me, the heroes of the 2009 vintage in Washington found a way to polish those tannins, by making good decisions in the vineyard or in the winery, and still produce wines with impressive depth of flavor and expression. Among them are Abeja, Bookwalter, Cayuse, Dunham, K Vintners, Quilceda Creek and Syncline. Even those who rely on Red Mountain grapes, such as Force Majeure, Obelisco, Cadence and Fidelitas, did their usual fine job ameliorating the harshness that can afflict that AVA.
But what to make of the 2009s from wineries such as Efestē? Where I once wrote admirably of its 2007 Syrah Ceidleigh (93 points) as "unencumbered by tannins or excess oak," I called the 2009 "solidly built with firm tannins." And yet its 2009 Syrah Eléni, from Red Willow Vineyard, impressed me with its polished tannins. Note that I rated both 2009 wines 92 points, so the difference is not in quality but style. Two of its Cabernets are very tannic too.
"Overall, 2009 was a compressed harvest with little uniformity," said the vintage assessment on the Washington State Wine Commission's website.
Little uniformity. That's what we need to remember about a vintage like 2009. Mother Nature presented some challenges to growers and winemakers. Vintners worried that a hot summer would bring overripe wines, but temperatures eased in early September and remained cooler than normal except for a brief heat spike in mid-harvest. Growers could wait patiently for flavors to catch up with sugar development. Everything was going great until Oct. 11, when temperatures in the prime growing regions dipped into the low 20s. The vines lost all their leaves in the frost, which meant an end to flavor development.
There are plenty of good to great 2009 reds from Washington, so don't ignore the vintage. Just check tasting notes for tannins, or save the chewy wines for a juicy steak.
You can follow Harvey Steiman on Twitter at twitter.com/harveywine.