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Washington State makes mark with top DWWA trophy

Washington State's rising reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon has been enhanced by a local winery winning one of the most prestigious prizes at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards.

L’Ecole No 41‘s ‘Ferguson’ 2011, a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc, beat all-comers to carry away the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Varietal(s) Over £15 at last week’s Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) ceremony.

It’s a coup for a US wine region that, while hardly new, is still trying to build a profile with many wine drinkers.

Washington was awarded 19 medals overall at DWWA 2014, including gold for Chateau Ste Michelle‘s Ethos Reserve 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and a Regional Trophy for its Eroica Gold 2012 Riesling.

’30 years ago Washington was unknown,’ said Martin Clubb, L’Ecole owner and managing winemaker. In 1983, Clubb’s wife’s parents, whose family name was Ferguson, founded L’Ecole as the 20th winery in Washington. There are 800 now.

‘Today, [Washington] is widely respected amongst the wine trade, but it is still a learning curve for most consumers. That seems to be changing fast.’

Washington Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, has got wine sector tongues wagging following the arrival of Napa Valley stalwarts. In April 2013, Cakebread Cellars announced the launch of a Bordeaux-style blend from Walla Walla, named Mullan Road.

Later that year, Napa-based Duckhorn said it would release a 2012 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Red Mountain region. It was also been scouting for land there.

Most recently, winemaker Todd Alexander left Napa’s Pritchard Hill winery to become head winemaker and general manager at Washington’s Force Majeure Vineyards.

‘Cabernet is King, even here in Washington,’ said L’Ecole’s Clubb, although he also noted rising popularity for Rhone reds.

‘The dry climate translates into smaller berries and smaller clusters [and] our long cool autumn gives long, natural hang-time for Cabernet.’ L’Ecole’s Cabernet Sauvignon harvest generally takes place in October, when there is up to 20 degrees celsius difference between day and night temperatures.

‘This slower ripening builds structure and helps preserve the natural acidity.’

Because the vines are grown on their own natural rootstock, Clubb argues this also gives more ‘varietal intensity’ to the fruit. ‘So we have what many refer to as new world fruit, with old world structure, acidity and balance; the latter giving the wines better age-ability.’

Jon Bonne, DWWA regional chair for the US and Decanter magazine columnist, said lower land prices have helped Washington to attract outside investment, especially from Napa.

‘The Washington reputation is relatively strong, and even if land has risen toward, say, $50,000 per acre in the best parts of Red Mountain or Walla Walla, that’s still an enormous deal by California standards.’

He added, ‘There’s almost no more land to buy in Napa, and certainly not at scale,’ said Bonne. ‘So do you try to build a Sonoma Cabernet brand, or a Paso Cabernet brand, at $50 a bottle? Or do you work with appellations that have both cachet and value?’

It’s not only Californian wine estates moving into Washington. Late last year, Canada’a Aquilini Investment Group bought 270ha of prime vineyard land in the Pasco area in a deal worth $16m.

There is also investment within the region. Clubb said the near-100ha L’Ecole recently expanded production from 32,000 cases annually to 44,000, and plans to expand the Ferguson vineyard from 7.5ha to 17.5ha, starting 2016.

Despite all the talk, Washington’s 2013 grape crush was still a paltry 210,000 tonnes versus California’s 4m-tonne haul. For wine lovers to make up their own minds on Washington wine, they have to be able to buy some.

With the investment taking place, availability could at least be set to increase over the next few years.

See the DWWA website for stockist information on the Washington medal winners, including L’Ecole No.41’s Ferguson 2011.

Written by Chris Mercer

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