It’s second only to California in terms of US wine production, but Washington State is little understood by UK collectors. Sadly, we just don’t see enough of the wines, so it was a rare experience to taste the 10 most recent vintages to mark the 40th anniversary of one of its most renowned estates.
Even by American standards, Quilceda Creek (pronounced ‘quill-sea-duh’) has an extraordinary heritage. It was founded in 1978 by current owner Paul’s father Alex Golitzin, whose parents had fled Russia in 1917. The family is directly descended from Prince Lev Sergeyevich Galitzine, winemaker to Tsar Nicholas II and considered the creator of Russian sparkling wine. The father of American winemaking, André Tchelistcheff, was Paul’s great-uncle. ‘We spent many hours in the cellar having discussions,’ recalls Paul, who decided to become a winemaker at the age of 15. ‘I also spent a great deal of time with his son, Dimitri, a very talented winemaker. I was immersed in the wine industry. I ate it up.’
That aristocratic family tree is rooted in equally special terroir. Washington State is at once astonishingly wet and bone dry. The great rump of the Cascade Mountains is the world’s most effective rain shadow: Seattle, on the western flank, gets 1,000mm of rain a year; the eastern side gets a tenth of that.
Winemaking conditions here are ideal, says youthful winemaker Alex Stewart (who has since moved, along with his two assistant winemakers of the past decade, to the state’s Matthews Winery, in something of a coup for the latter). ‘We get all the sun we want and beautiful water coming out of the Columbia River, which we can regulate as much as we need.’ Summers are hot and dry, but the temperature drops in September, allowing for leisurely harvests; summer nights are markedly cool (it might be 40°C at midday and 10°C at midnight); there’s hardly any disease. Ideal, indeed.
Hot, dry days and long, cool nights produce Cabernet Sauvignon with deep, powerful tannins and high acidity
That combination of hot, dry days and long, cool nights produces Cabernet Sauvignon with deep, powerful tannins and high acidity. It’s a combination that needs careful handling (Washington Cabernets still have a reputation for powerful, rustic tannins). At Quilceda, the idea is to release as few tannins as possible: no crushing, only free-run juice, with the gentlest possible pumping-over and constant checking for extraction levels.
The resultant wines have a mix of fine berry fruit and brisk acidity; they are opulent without being fleshy, the acidity bringing a welcome wash of juice. As a comparison, Napa Cabernets at their best have exotic perfumed top notes; up here you find spice, white pepper and (sometimes) a refreshing herbal snap. These are delicate, bright and fresh wines, with marvellous tannic heft and the sort of structure that promises decades of ageing.
Golitzin sources his grapes from some of the best sites in the state, for his production of about 4,500 cases of single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. The flagship wine is the Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which is what we’re tasting here. Three of the vineyards – Champoux, Palengat and Mach One – are in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Champoux in particular, with its sandy, loamy soil as fine as talc, looks like a desert at the uttermost ends of the earth (‘That’s where we get our perfumed aromatics,’ Stewart says). Then there’s Galitzine, named after the family’s Russian forebears, in the Red Mountain AVA, famed for producing Cabernets with what Stewart describes as ‘big, bold, punch-in-the-face tannins’. As ever, careful handling is key.
I speak to Golitzin – who, as director of winemaking, will oversee winemaking during the search for Stewart’s successor – on the phone as he celebrates the 40th anniversary of this most unobtrusive of wineries. He knows how good his wines are, and he happily namechecks Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle as his perceived equals (adding that, at around the $200/£150 mark, Quilceda is a fraction of the price of those exalted estates).
What’s his ambition for the next few decades? There’s a pause. ‘We’re pretty happy with how things are. It’s not a question of keeping the status quo. We don’t want to be stagnant, but we don’t want to increase production, either. We’re always trying to make the wines better. It’s hard to do.’ Golitzin thinks again and finally voices a winemaking ambition that is as difficult to attain as it is universal: ‘We just try to use the best skills we have to make the wine represent the given vintage. That’s it, really.’
- Read Bruce Schoenfeld’s column on how Washington State wines match up to the best of California from an investment perspective