As well as growing grapes for juice and jelly, Washington is the second largest wine grape producing state of the U.S. It produces wine at a variety of price points, but a number of producers aspire for it to be recognised as a premium wine region. This is an area which is experiencing growth and where growers are adapting to find the most suitable (and profitable) mix of grape varietals.
In 1993, wine grapes in Washington occupied a total of 4,496 ha, of which 36% were black and 64% white. By 2011 the total vineyard area was 17,745 ha of which black varietals now represented 57% of the total wine grape area. These changes to the vineyard have had a marked effect on the harvest and crush.
Most obviously, the size of the crush has increased. In 2000 the Washington crush totalled 81,600 metric tonnes (t), it reached a record breaking 170,500 t in 2012 and is expected to be larger still in 2013. Another significant change has been in the ratio of black to white grapes, with 2012 being the first year that black grapes crushed exceeded that of whites.
Of Washington’s white grapes, Chardonnay has historically commanded a significant price premium, but since 2002 its price has converged with the other major white grape cultivars. These have all stabilised at an average price of US$600-800 per metric tonne (t), representing an average decline in real terms over the past ten years. An emphasis on grape (and wine) quality and increased marketing efforts will probably be required if future price increases of white grapes in real terms are to be achieved. Washington Reislings may be very well respected by critics, but this is a varietal that still struggles to obtain widespread consumer acceptance.
The average price of black grapes over the last ten years has risen steadily and in 2012 was in the range of US$1,000-1,300 per metric tonne for the major cultivars. Lower yields are typically obtained for black compared to white grapes. In Washington’s 2011 crush, the black grape yield was 6.9 t/ha compared to 10.9 t/ha for white grapes. When yields are taken into account, the price differential between black and white grapes seems somewhat less dramatic.
If 2013 does indeed prove to be a bumper crop for Washington State, perhaps wine lovers outside the US will soon have more of a chance to drink some of the increasingly sophisticated wines being produced in this underrated wine region. The 2012 entry of E&J Gallo into the Washington wine scene (via their purchase of Columbia Winery) might just hasten Washington’s bid to receive a deserved wider audience.