When the folks at Mercer Wine Estate offered to send some samples my way, I jumped at the chance.
Here’s why: I know that some great wines come from Washington State, but they often aren’t the first ones I think to buy when I’m at the store or in a restaurant.
But I am hardly alone in this, and some of the reasons are obvious. While Washington ranks second in the US in terms of volume and in the number of wineries, the actual figures are quite skewed. California makes some 90% of wine in the US and has more than 4,200 wineries, while Washington’s 747 estates make about 5% of the country’s total wine production.
Further, while California’s wine regions are day trip-able (or you’re staying there anyway), seeing Washington’s prime wine country requires several hours of driving through the Cascade Mountains, making either for a long day or requiring an overnight stay.
But the inconveniences are worth the chance to explore this amazing region.
Washington is young when it comes to wine production. After all, though the first grapes were planted in 1825 at Fort Vancouver, it’s not known if the traders who grew them actually made wine!
The earliest winery came about in Walla Walla in 1860, with the first vitis vinifera grapes (the European varietals like cabernet or chardonnay that we know and love!) planted in 1871.
The industry grew substantially into the 20th century. It was large enough, in fact, that the first annual Columbia River Valley Grape Carnival was held in 1910. (The event is cited in the1914 book Homeseeker’s Guide to the State of Washington, though any electronic record of it after that doesn’t seem to exist and I suspect the festival probably ended with Prohibition.)
Commercial-scale planting started in Washington in 1960, when the Columbia Rivers Irrigation Project turned an arid region into a crop-supporting one. But this time growth was slow: by 1978, only some 2,500 acres of grapes were planted.
Some of these belonged to Don and Linda Mercer (yes, they founded the winery!), who began planting in the descriptively named Horse Heaven Hills in 1972.
Today, the appellation is home to 26% of the state’s grapevines. They are typically located on slopes – elevations range from 200 to 1,800 feet above sea level – and enjoy an arid, continental climate.
So, how do the Mercer wines stack up? The three I tasted are admittedly not a representative sample, but they did give good insight into the region.
First, I tried the sauvignon blanc. There was really a lot going on with this wine. I found it smelled like grass, hay and sunshine (and this was right from the regular fridge!!) with notes of bread and caramel emerging on the second sniff. Flavors were light and bright, with notes of cream and vanilla. It was definitely less grassy on the palate, but still with green notes. It wasn’t too acidic. In short, this is a very nicely balanced sauvignon.
Next up was their Sharp Sisters, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, petit verdot, grenache and carignan. This was definitely a big wine that took a few minutes in the glass to smooth out. I wrote that the nose was closed, but eventually aromas of cinnamon, dust, blackberry and tomato emerged. The taste echoed some of these flavors, with the addition of blueberries, black pepper, plum and herbs. This was definitely a more flavorful than aromatic wine, not that that matters; it was still yummy!
The last sample was malbec, a grape more associated with Argentina than Washington. Aromatically, the wine was really rich but not in-your-face. There were notes of spices and red fruit. On the palate, the wine was medium-bodied, with savory herb and spice notes. Red fruits also came out in the flavors, particularly notes of cranberry.
Throughout my tasting, I tried to notice if there was a thread that wove through all these wines, one that might hallmark those from Horse Heaven Hills, if not actually Washington. For me, it was a certain “not too” in the wines – they weren’t too exuberant or too restrained, not too heavy but not too light. Or, as Goldilocks might say, they were just right.