Through the course of 2016, I’ve tasted thousands of wines from throughout the Pacific Northwest (and around the globe, for that matter).
Knowing I’ll be producing this year-end list, I think about wines that really stand out. I tasted the No. 4 and 5 wines on this year’s list in the first quarter, and each stood out in my mind for the entire year, both for their clarity as well as purity of fruit.
Looking through this list, it comes to mind that I’m particularly fascinated with a couple of grape varieties being produced in the Northwest, particularly malbec (six examples made my top 50) and petite sirah (three examples).
I also wanted to keep in mind value as I compiled this list, so nearly half of the wines retail for $30 or less. While there are several priced at $50 or higher (including the top two), producing great wines costs money — for great grapes, the proper equipment, etc.
This year’s No. 1 wine comes from Long Shadows, the international collaboration between Washington and several of the world’s top winemakers. This particular merlot resonated with me the several times I tasted it, and that earned it my top spot.
You might look over this list and ask yourself why several obvious top wineries are missing. It’s as simple as this: I base this on the wines I taste under blind conditions, meaning I know neither the producer nor the price during the evaluation process. Some producers choose not to submit their wines and, well, I cannot recommend them if I haven’t tasted them.
Without further ado, here are my top 50 wines from 2016:
1. Pedestal 2013 merlot, Columbia Valley, $60: The combined winemaking of global great Michel Rolland and Walla Walla’s Gilles Nicault has this merlot locked and loaded with great flavor and balance. The Long Shadows experiment of bringing the world to Washington is paying off.
2. Woodward Canyon 2012 Estate Reserve, Walla Walla Valley, $79: This is owner Rick Small’s most exciting red wine, and it nearly ranked my No. 1 wine for the second year in a row.
3. Robert Karl Cellars 2013 The Phinny cabernet sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $36: This Spokane winery works only with Horse Heaven Hills fruit, and this cab from one of our state’s top vineyards shows strength and elegance.
4. Seven of Hearts 2013 tannat, Columbia Valley, $29: Tannat could be a perfect wine for Washington’s climate, and this gorgeous red gives me hope that it could catch on.
5. Plaisance Ranch 2013 carménère, Applegate Valley, $30: This was one of the first wines I tasted this year, and it has stuck in my mind since as the best example of this red Bordeaux variety I’ve ever tasted.
6. Upchurch Vineyard 2013 cabernet sauvignon, Red Mountain, $68: This collectible wine from winemaker Chris Upchurch combines grace and power: a wine that should only become more interesting with patience.
7. Mercer Canyons 2014 malbec, Horse Heaven Hills, $14: The best wine under $15 I tasted this year. This is my hope for Washington malbec competing with Argentine imports.
8. Nicolas-Jay 2014 pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $65: A Burgundian comes to Oregon and crafts a pinot noir with knee-buckling grace and depth.
9. Palencia Wine Co. 2015 albariño, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $18: A stunning white — the best I tasted this year — that shows what is possible with this Spanish variety.
10. Passing Time 2013 cabernet sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $75: This gorgeous cab from Woodinville could have taken any spot on my top 10. A highly collectible red.
11. Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Phinny Hill Vineyard carménère, Washington, $28: The Northwest’s rising star of winemaking lives in Lewiston, Idaho, and her name is Coco Umiker.
12. DeLille Cellars 2012 Red Willow Vineyard malbec, Red Mountain, $45: I love malbec, and this example combines a great winemaker — Upchurch — with a great grape grower — Mike Sauer. Expect nothing less than greatness.
13. Pike Road Wines 2014 pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $19: An affordable Oregon pinot noir that also exudes beauty and depth? Buy this one by the case.
14. Reininger Winery 2013 Seven Hills Vineyard carménère, Walla Walla Valley, $56: This is winemaker Chuck Reininger’s signature wine, and it shows just how stunning carménère can be in Washington.
15. Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards 2014 Winemaker’s Reserve syrah, Umpqua Valley, $29: Perhaps the Northwest’s best winemaker is Stephen Reustle in Roseburg, Ore. He proves that one bottle at a time.
16. RMS 2013 brut, Willamette Valley, $65: Winemaker Rollin Soles made bubbly at Argyle in Dundee, Ore., for the better part of 30 years. This is his first sparkler for his own label, and it’s an instant classic.
17. Saviah Cellars 2012 Reserve cabernet sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $45: Richard Funk might just be the Walla Walla Valley’s top winemaker, and his reserve cab was his best effort this year.
18. Silvara Vineyards 2014 malbec, Walla Walla Valley, $42: This little winery near Leavenworth is nailing every red it produces, and this malbec is a stunning achievement.
19. Smasne Cellars 2012 Three Vineyard Reserve malbec, Columbia Valley, $44: Winemaker Robert Smasne is one of Washington’s best young winemakers, and this malbec was his top wine in 2016.
20. Tantalus Wines 2013 Old Vines riesling, Okanagan Valley, $30: We are so blessed with great rieslings in the Northwest, and this effort from north of the border is remarkable in flavor and structure.
21. Thurston Wolfe 2012 Zephyr Ridge Vineyard Reserve petite sirah, Horse Heaven Hills, $30: Wade Wolfe is Washington’s best petite sirah producer, and this small-production red is one of the best he’s ever made.
22. Colter’s Creek Winery 2013 Arrow Rim red, Idaho, $25: This Southern Rhône Valley-style blend from Idaho’s Lewis-Clark Valley is one of the best wines from the Gem State — and the Pacific Northwest.
23. Amelia Wynn 2013 The Dwelley Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $32: This Bainbridge Island producer is crafting superb reds, including this vineyard-designated cab using Walla Walla grapes.
24. Argyle Winery 2012 Artisan Series brut rosé, Willamette Valley, $50: One of America’s best sparkling wines comes from Dundee, Ore. This is a delicious bubbly for a special occasion.
25. Bunnell Family Cellar 2012 Discovery Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $48: Discovery Vineyard, overlooking the Columbia River, is developing into one of the state’s top red growers, and this cab is a clear indicator of that.
26. Double Canyon 2013 cabernet sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $25: Here is a world-class Washington red at a rocking price.
27. Dunham Cellars 2013 syrah, Columbia Valley, $35: For more than a decade, Dunham has been one of the state’s best syrah producers, and this example further burnishes that reputation.
28. Dusted Valley Vintners 2013 petite sirah, Wahluke Slope, $42: The boys at Dusted Valley craft stunning petite sirah (having landed No. 1 on this list in the past), and this sturdy vintage is among their best efforts.
29. JoieFarm Winery 2015 A Noble Blend, Okanagan Valley, $24: This Alsatian-inspired white blend is highlighted by its clarity of fruit. A stunning wine to enjoy with Asian fare.
30. Jones of Washington 2015 riesling, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $10: This off-dry riesling is beautifully balanced with crisp acidity that is like walking across a glacier.
31. Knudsen Vineyards 2013 pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $55: Using vines planted in the early 1970s, this Dundee, Ore., producer is crafting some of the most remarkable pinots in Oregon.
32. Tightrope Winery 2015 riesling, Okanagan Valley, $22: Based on the remote Naramata Bench, Tightrope is a don’t-miss producer that crafts one of the best rieslings anywhere.
33. Van Duzer Vineyards 2013 Saffron Fields Vineyard pinot noir, Yamhill-Carlton, $60: Van Duzer is near Salem, Ore., and has a compelling style dialed in that is consistently outstanding.
34. Vino La Monarcha 2015 pinot noir rosé, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $18: Winemaker Victor Palencia has found the perfect Washington location for growing pinot noir and crafts a superb pink.
35. Browne Family Vineyards 2013 petit verdot, Columbia Valley, $35: This Precept Wine-owned Walla Walla winery is focusing on Bordeaux varieties, and this is a great example of Washington petit verdot.
36. Columbia Crest 2013 Grand Estates syrah, Columbia Valley, $12: A great wine at a stunning price. Buy by the case, and enjoy any night of the week.
37. Fidelitas 2013 malbec, Red Mountain, $40: Charlie Hoppes is one of our state’s top winemakers, and this malbec is one of the great red wines I tasted in 2016.
38. Grantwood Winery 2014 tempranillo, Walla Walla Valley, $18: Walla Walla winemaker Joe Grant is crafting remarkable wines at modest prices. This is a great introduction to this Spanish variety.
39. Bainbridge Vineyards 2013 madeleine angevine, Puget Sound, $18: This cool-climate grape is grown on Bainbridge Island, and it is seductive and delicious.
40. Barnard Griffin 2014 Rob’s red blend, Washington, $14: This merlot-leading blend is remarkably tasty for an under-$15 red.
41. Basalt Cellars 2013 GSM, Columbia Valley, $36: This Southern Rhône-style blend from a small winery in Clarkston is sublime yet firm.
42. L’Ecole No. 41 2015 Old Vines chenin blanc, Columbia Valley, $15: Chenin blanc is making a bit of a comeback, and this is the best example you’ll find in Washington.
43. Maryhill Winery 2013 Proprietor’s Reserve Serendipity red wine, Columbia Valley, $36: Here’s a cab-heavy red blend that reveals purity of fruit and underlying muscularity.
44. Milbrandt Vineyards 2013 The Estates Northridge syrah, Wahluke Slope, $42: Washington’s most consistently jammy and delicious syrahs come from the Wahluke Slope, and this is a superb example.
45. Plain Cellars 2013 petite sirah, Yakima Valley, $30: This small producer near Leavenworth is crafting great reds, particularly this muscular petite sirah.
46. Wit Cellars 2013 Elephant Mountain Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Yakima Valley, $50: A new producer in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser comes out of the gate quickly with this stunning single-vineyard cab.
47. Seven Falls Cellars 2013 cabernet sauvignon, Wahluke Slope, $20: A great price for a rich, ripe and remarkable red.
48. Sol Stone Winery 2013 grenache, Wahluke Slope, $28: Grenache could be Washington’s answer to pinot noir, and the clarity of this example is like a bell ringing across an empty field.
49. Wautoma Wines 2012 malbec, Columbia Valley, $48: Mercer winemaker Jessica Munnell’s side gig is this small-production label, and her malbec is one of the great examples I tasted this year.
50. Westport Winery 2013 Charterboat Chick, Horse Heaven Hills, $28: Cabernet sauvignon is the lead grape on this luscious wine from Washington’s coast (the grapes come from east of the Cascades, of course).