Looking Back on Hedges

A vertical tasting of Red Mountain Cabernets back to 1996 highlights developments at the Washington stalwart
Jun 11, 2015

Tom Hedges qualifies as a Washington pioneer. When he and his France-born wife, Anne-Marie Liégeois, founded Hedges Family Estate in 1987, it didn't take a big database to track the 50 or so wineries in the state. A 1994 blend of three vineyards on Red Mountain, including their own, earned a spot on the Wine Spectator Top 100 in 1996, with a score of 90 points.

Today the state's winery roster exceeds 850, and Hedges cranks out 75,000 cases. Although they buy grapes from all over Columbia Valley, the core of the portfolio remains the estate Cabernets and blends, centered on 40 acres of Bordeaux varieties they planted on Red Mountain in 1989. The wines have shown they can age, and to underline that aspect on a recent visit to San Francisco, Tom and Anne-Marie shared a vertical dating to 1996.

Tannins can dominate Red Mountain wines, and many winegrowers simply let the grapes get riper to soften texture. But Hedges has also taken a stand against high alcohol levels, picking earlier than its neighbors, which raises the degree of difficulty to produce flavorful and supple wines. Winemaker Sarah Hedges' approach includes pressing the wine well before the wines ferment to dryness, which extracts fewer tannins, and finishing some of the ferments in barrel, which helps integrate tannins.

Sarah (Tom and Anne-Marie's daughter) took over winemaking from her uncle Peter in 2006. Around the same time, the Hedges started converting their vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. If the 2012 vintage is an indication, going biodynamic has also played a role. Clocking in at 13.8 percent alcohol, La Haute Cuvée, made from the first of their vineyards to convert fully to biodynamic, has more density and richness than the estate bottling (13.2 percent alcohol), which still shows lovely currant and plum fruit at the core, with nice persistence.

The most mature wine, the 1996 Red Mountain from magnum, still feels firm and tangy, but the ripe, generous flavors persist under crunchy tannins. The 1998, a warmer vintage, shows softer texture but not quite the density. The 1999, a cooler vintage, was the better wine, fresher in the mouth and more complete. Being the cooler vintage, Sarah says, 1999 allowed for an extended ripening period without acquiring too much sugar, and therefore produced moderate alcohol.

Acidity seemed high for me in two wines from the past decade: The 2005 shows sandy tannins and sandy-earthy flavors through the cherry and spice notes; a hard edge in the 2007 gives way to more supple textures, and the finish gets fleshier than the '05's. The 2012 shows better balance.

Nice to see things are on track under the new generation.

United States Washington Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon

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