What defines Washington State wine? Veteran Washington winemaker Bob Betz asked this question during a tasting earlier this month of some of the state’s top wines. While the blind tasting revealed answers in broad strokes, Betz mentioned that he could dive even deeper and define certain varietal flavors based on their specific Washington terroir.
We couldn’t resist asking the longtime winemaker to do just that. Though due to time constraints this required a follow-up email after the event. So what follows are the answers from Betz (owner of Betz Family Winery) about what varietals perform especially well in particular Washington AVAs and vineyards.
1) Evergreen Vineyard and Riesling
“This is a vineyard in the Ancient Lakes AVA where Riesling has proven to be one of the most brilliant marriages (no pun intended) in the Columbia Valley.
Ancient Lakes is a northern AVA, between 1100 and 1300 feet in altitude, and with a gentle slope to the east. This combination leads to a later start to the season and a later harvest date, quite a special climate for the late ripening Riesling. Add to this a complex soil of fractured basalt, some silt and sand and a heavy deposit of calcium carbonate (caliche), the wines from here typically have a crystalline purity and notable acidity.
In addition to the EFESTE Riesling tasted at the presentation, Eroica Riesling is the vineyard’s other major star. This joint venture between Dr. Loosen and Chateau Ste. Michelle was the first to explore this site for Riesling, and in a typical vintage, the greatest fraction of Eroica is made from this vineyard’s fruit.”
2) Red Mountain and Cabernet Sauvignon
“This small AVA has proven a great site for power reds, with Cabernet Sauvignon and the peak of the pyramid.
This AVA has just about the highest heat summation of any in the Columbia Valley, combined with a weak, cobble and gravel ladened soil. Cabernet Sauvignon has been planted here for over three decades and has made its way into the state’s most acclaimed Cabernets.
At Betz Family we farm 5 or 6 individual Cabernet blocks here, scattered through the acreage at Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Heart of the Hill vineyards, and each produces stunning, fruit. They are different from each other, with varying levels of phenolics and fruit expression, but each has staggering inky black color, classic black currant dominance, mixed dried herbs and profound, age worthy structure.”
3) DuBrul Vineyard and Merlot
“Merlot has found many welcoming sites in the Columbia Valley, and the wines made from Yakima Valley Merlot are among the softest and most graceful in the state.
DuBrul Vineyard, a higher altitude prominent outcropping in the middle of the Yakima Valley AVA, is an exception. The uneven hills, rocky soil and relatively cool meso-climate of the vineyard turn out dense, powerful, deeply colored Merlot; I sometimes confuse it for Cabernet in our blind barrel tastings when young.
We’ve been farming this for a number of years at Betz Family and every vintage it hits top scores in our barrel assessments and always makes it into our flagship wines.”
4) Celilo Vineyard and Chardonnay
“While not inside the Columbia Valley AVA, this vineyard has made a name for itself as the origin of pristine, chiseled Chardonnays.
Celilo is in the Columbia Gorge AVA, a cooler, more maritime climate than its warmer neighbor to the east, the Columbia Valley. It sits at a high altitude up above the Columbia River (~1000 feet), has lower heat summation and a later harvest. The Chardonnays, while not the biggest kids on the block, are always highly fragrant, beautiful balanced and with notable complexity.”