Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Cab from Washington coming into its own

The Mathison family’s vineyards in the Wenatchee Valley for Stemilt Creek Winery are among the highest-elevation sites in Washington state at 2,000 feet.
The Mathison family’s vineyards in the Wenatchee Valley for Stemilt Creek Winery are among the highest-elevation sites in Washington state at 2,000 feet.

With Thanksgiving here, it’s time to consider wines for winter holidays and cold winter nights. The first to come to mind is Washington Cabernet Sauvignon, a bold red that has been coming into its own during the past decade.

As recently as 10 years ago, Washington Cabs were built often with impenetrable tannins and driven by oak. Too often the fruit was sadly masked by the bold structure.

Fortunately, winemaking has evolved. Washington winemakers now apply techniques that have made the wines more supple, more approachable and more fruit-driven. Contributing to this are the emergence of sites in the Horse Heaven Hills and on Red Mountain. Winemakers also are relying on years of experience and weather forecasts to make better decisions at harvest. Once the juice is in the cellar, winemaking teams are using new blending concepts and techniques. The results are more thoughtful, approachable wines that have allowed Cabernet Sauvignon’s uniquely Washington style to emerge from the shadows while also not compromising on the wine’s ability to age or veer away from varietal correctness.

Here are six examples of Cab from Washington we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Sparkman Cellars 2016 Holler Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $32: Last year’s Honorary Vintner for the Auction of Washington Wines earned a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2016 with the 2013 Holler. This new release of Chris Sparkman’s flagship wine seems to be on a similar trajectory. Lovely aromas of plum and blackberry include violet and leather. It’s very cherry, jammy and chocolaty on the palate, making it an easy drinker with enough structure to keep it serious.

Mercer Family Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $17: The synergistic winemaking transition in 2017 from Jessica Munnell to Jeremy Santo – a pair of proud Washington State University grads – is apparent in this essentially bargain example of Cab from the Horse Heaven Hills. This release provides a snapshot of some of the Mercer family’s most-prized plantings, including Eagle & Plow, Dead Canyon, Spice Cabinet and Milt’s Vineyard – a tribute to the late Milton “Bud” Mercer, Jr. Complex aromas of black cherry and plum pick up sweet dill and savory notes of black olive. There’s a snappy approach to the tannins behind the black cherry, blackcap raspberry and cassis flavors ahead of the cinnamon bark finish.

Cabernet Sauvignon Mercer
The Mercer family helped pioneer winegrowing in the Horse Heaven Hills, and their grapes contribute to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon produced in Washington. Courtesy Richard Duval Images

Amelia Wynn Winery 2015 Kiona Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain $38: Bainbridge Island winemaker Paul Bianchi pays tribute to his twin granddaughters on every bottle, and here he works with the renowned Williams family at Kiona for the three barrels of Cab that merited gold medals this year at the San Francisco Chronicle and Washington State wine competitions. The theme of blackberry, ripe plum and cherry picks up shaved chocolate and sage before the scrape of slate in the finish. Craftsmanship shows as the deft touch with the oak and spot-on tannins make this quite pleasant.

Stemilt Creek Winery 2014 Ascent Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $48: The Mathison family spans four generations as orchardists and farmers in Washington’s Wenatchee Valley. Their vines are well into their second decade of existence, and with the guidance of winemaker Richard Hood, a graduate of University of California-Davis, Stemilt Creek recently launched Ascent, a tier tailored to its wine club. This robust Cab is extremely expressive, starting with toasted oak and caramel, cherries and chocolate, joined by sage and grilled meat. The entry is bold with Bing cherry and chocolate-covered blueberries, which lead to long and sweet tannins.

Robert Karl Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $32: Spokane physician/winegrower Joseph Gunselman and Robert Karl Cellars source from Gunselman Bench, Phinny Hill and McKinley Springs vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills for the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon. And it’s a Cab built to thrive well into the next decade. Aromas of black cherry, blackberry and blueberry deliver the same flavors on the palate.

Cabernet Sauvignon HHH
A key component to the success of many of Washington state’s top examples of Cabernet Sauvignon is the development of the expansive Horse Heaven Hills. Courtesy Richard Duval Images

4 Cellars by Little Big Town 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $20: Seattle’s Precept Wine has tasked John Freeman of Waterbrook in Walla Walla to make the wine for CEO Andrew Browne’s collaboration with Grammy Award-winning Little Big Town. The country group’s four members chose to name it 4 Cellars. Their latest Cab belts out powerful notes of blueberry and blackberry that carry onto the palate with harmonious tannins and a hedonistic finish that borders on buttery. Thanks to Freeman and the chart-topping band’s fans, 4 Cellars has gone from concept to a 10,000-case brand in less than two years. And this Cab is available through Total Wine & More.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at