Cabernet Sauvignon King of the Northwest

Variety overtakes Riesling in Washington state, which now grows 'predominantly red' wine grapes

by Peter Mitham
wine  winery vineyard washington state

Seattle, Wash.—Cabernet Sauvignon has firmly dethroned Riesling in Washington state, according to the latest vineyard census the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS) conducted of vineyards of an acre or more.

The census, the seventh of its kind, determined that the area devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon has more than tripled during the past decade to 18,608 acres. This is more than half the 35,852 acres planted to red varieties in the state, and closing in on the 19,593 acres devoted to white grapes.

While red plantings have typically outstripped white, new plantings have not only boosted acreage but seen more productive plantings. Pickers plucked 78,300 tons of white grapes and 63,700 tons of red in 2011, the year the last vineyard survey took place, but the two traded places the following year, and in 2016 a total of 157,300 tons of red grapes came in versus just 112,700 tons of white grapes.

“It’s clear that there’s been a shift,” said Steve Warner, president and CEO of the Washington State Wine Commission. “We were predominantly white, now we’re predominantly red.”

The surge in new plantings saw Cabernet Sauvignon knock Riesling off the throne as the most-harvested grape variety in 2015, with a total take of 47,400 tons. Riesling, for its part, fell from a peak of 50,500 tons in 2014 to 44,100 tons in 2016 and 41,300 last year. Growers harvested 71,100 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon last year, putting the variety on track to bust through 75,000 tons this year as new plantings continue to come into production.

USDA-NASS figures indicate that growers planted 3,943 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon between 2006 and 2011, with an additional 2,429 acres planted between 2014 and 2016.

The shift is exciting, Warner said, particularly as consumers embrace red blends.

“You see the reds in general doing well, with Cabernet obviously leading the pack, then Merlot and Syrah,” he said. “But it’s not a conscious effort from a marketing perspective.…It’s really market forces.”

With all the new plantings, pricing has strengthened but not excessively. Data from the Washington State Wine Commission indicates Malbec and Cabernet Franc retain top billing in terms of pricing at $1,587 and $1,576 per ton. Cabernet Sauvignon, meanwhile, averaged $1,442 per ton in 2016, up 10% from $1,312 in 2011. Pricing for the entire wine grape crop increased 17% over the same period.

“Considering how much the supply’s gone up, it’s good that the price held up,” Warner said. “That’s a healthy sign.”

Oregon perspective
Data from Oregon provides an interesting counterpoint to the latest numbers from Washington state.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive grape variety in Oregon, at $2,472 per ton. This compares to $2,422 per ton for Pinot Noir. Cabernet occupies a position in Oregon similar to that of Malbec and Cabernet Franc in Washington, with just a few hundred acres planted. The growth of Pinot Noir, meanwhile, has rivalled that of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington, so much so that in 2009 some questioned whether or not the state could absorb it all.

Today, some might ask the question of Cabernet Sauvignon, despite ambitious forecasts by Chateau Ste. Michelle that Washington could eventually expand to 200,000 acres of vineyard.

Warner, whose organization coordinates marketing of Washington wine, doesn’t see a lack of markets.

“The industry’s healthy,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a sense that we’re overheating by any means. There’s a home for this fruit.”

There’s also future room for expansion, as underscored by Todd Alexander, who moved from Napa to become head winemaker at Force Majeure.

“He moved up here from Napa because he saw the potential and the growth opportunity,” Warner told Wines & Vines. “You see that with other outside investment from Cakebread and Duckhorn, Trinchero and Crimson and all those guys.”

Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., said as much when asked about the appetite for plantings at the 6,100-acre Weidert property, which went to auction Nov. 10 (see “Auction Could Change Face of Walla Walla”).

Pointing to the Aquilini family’s investment on Red Mountain and the growth of larger wineries as well as custom-crush operations, Clubb said current circumstances meant additional acreage could support organic growth.

Warner agreed. While the intermittent acreage report may indicate huge gains, the annual growth rate in the state’s production is closer to 8% per year, he said. The wines are finding a home as people are finding Washington, and what it can do.

“People see how Washington can over-deliver, so we don’t necessarily have to create new Cabernet drinkers, new blend drinkers,” he said. “We’re capturing a share of mind, share of palate.”

Currently no comments posted for this article.