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harvey steiman at large

Washington's 2011 Reds Test Theories on Ripeness

Cooler temperatures and wetter weather make for starker choices
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 20, 2014 10:30am ET

Ripeness and alcohol continue to polarize wine drinkers. The prevailing trend almost everywhere these days is toward more moderate levels of alcohol, but a highly vocal wing still finds too much alcohol in too many wines.

It's the sugar in the grapes, of course, that ferments into alcohol, so winegrowers are seeking ways to get enough ripeness to deliver pleasurable flavors without the sugar getting out of hand. Finding a cool climate can do it. But sometimes a cool vintage is a mixed blessing, as my recent experience sampling 2011 Washington reds demonstrates.

In three days of blind tasting through a range of new releases, mostly 2011s along with a few from surrounding vintages, I was struck by how much alike many of these 2011s tasted. Merlots, Cabernets and Syrahs and attendant blends all shared similar structural and flavor profiles. The 2012s and 2010s reflected more individuality.

Many of those who push for low alcohol argue that excess ripeness can obscure terroir, the sense of place that wine can reflect. They say it's riper wines that taste alike, just fruit and more fruit.

I value complexity. Although I prefer fruit, I want it to balance with other elements in a wine's profile. At 12.5 or 13.0 degrees alcohol, too many wines just taste anemic. The best ones, the ones from cooler climates, can have an utterly beguiling resilience and open texture.

Throughout most of Washington, 2011 brought lower temperatures and wetter weather than usual. But unlike their neighbors to the south in Oregon and California, Washington winemakers got fairly normal sugar levels. The early wines I tasted from this vintage showed lighter textures than usual and pretty flavors. It looked as if they dodged a bullet.

The more serious wines, however, seem to be all over the board. Far too many veer toward earthy and savory flavors and little or no fruit. Tannins can be tough. Alcohol levels are maybe half a degree lower than usual, but many of the wines were still in the 14 to 14.5 range, and with normal acidity levels. In many cases ripe characteristics, which many of us want for a pleasurable wine were missing. If you like earthy, savory styles (and some of them can be compelling), you can find them among Washington's 2011s.

In comparison the 2010s and 2012s in my tastings brimmed with fruit, and not all the same fruit. Some leaned toward fresh currants, others to cherry, yet others to berries, or combinations thereof (and others). Those were riper years, though not as big and powerful as, say, 2007 or 2009. But next to the general run of 2011s, they stood out as much more present and expressive.

2011 has its standouts. The percentage of 2011 reds I've rated 90 points or higher ("outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) is only down a few ticks from previous vintages. There are even a few "classics" (95 or higher). But be forewarned. More 2011s have scored in the low 80s and high 70s than usual. You just have to choose carefully.

Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  June 20, 2014 1:07pm ET
Thanks for sharing your tasting notes regarding the 2011 Washington reds. I joined a few different winery clubs, mailing and waiting lists when I went to Woodinville, Yakima and Walla Walla in June, 2012 and your findings help explain some tasting disappointments I have experienced once receiving club shipments. It is hard not to open one from each case of wine you receive (to "preview") as part of each allotment knowing there are eleven more waiting to be enjoyed with friends and family at some point in the future.

It has been a hit and miss situation for sure. My own take with some of the wines was the stringency, lack of fruit and balance in the 2011 in comparison to earlier vintages of the same wine.
Michael Haley
Eugene, OR —  June 21, 2014 10:02am ET
I agree - 2011 is all over the map for WA reds, and OR did not do that much better on 2011 pinots. It would be good to know what those "low 80s and high 70s" are as there are only 4 2011 WA reds below 85 in the WS database currently.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 21, 2014 1:58pm ET
Michael, it will be a few weeks before the wines I tasted last week show up in the database.

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