Washington Red Wines Develop a Tannic Bite

Tannins are becoming an issue among Cabernets and other reds

Pardon me while I put on my grumpy pants … but the level of tannins has reached an alarming state in far too many Washington reds.

Tasting 99 Washington red wines in the past three weeks has left me with plenty of admiration for their sense of presence and distinctive character—I rated 44 of them outstanding, including six classics at 95 points or more—but those tannins!

Too many of the wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Grenache and Syrah dipped below the 90-point line for me, including some that perennially rate better. They confronted me with tannins I described as «taut,» «a touch bitter,» «crunchy,» «acerbic,» «chewy» and «gravelly.» They overshadowed the beautiful flavor profiles. Young wines need not draw in your cheeks with their tannins to prove that they can age. All they need is enough to keep the wine.

Washington’s top wines do what the best wines from anywhere do—fold their tannins into a texture that lets magical flavors come through brilliantly. It’s not just the luck of the draw that all six of my classic-rated Washington wines this month were Syrahs and Grenaches, varieties that usually develop more approachable textures, a reason I believe Washington excels at Rhône-style wines.

My notes on these Grenache and Syrah bottlings use words like «supple,» «refined,» «plush,» «velvety» and «satiny» to describe their textures. This does not represent a lack of tannins, but well-managed tannins that lose their astringency in favor of a more polished texture. My favored Cabernet-centric wines in these tastings inspired phrases such as «well-integrated» and «refined tannins that carry the finish to great length.»

But the rest? Too tannic in too many also-rans.

This tannin buildup is happening in both expensive and value-priced wines. Should a $12 Merlot blend be «firm and chewy»? Should «a thick blanket of nubby tannins» appear in a $13 Merlot? I can see «peppery tannins» in a $20 Syrah-Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend, but «crunchy tannins» in a $20 Syrah makes it an outlier.

The problem seems to be more acute in the 2013 vintage. Although the best seem to have reined in the tannins, I find elevated astringency in many Washington 2013 reds, about as much as in the much-cooler (and problematic) 2011s. I find the increasingly tough textures worrisome, especially among Merlots but also in other Bordeaux varietals and blends. If you prefer reds with more velvet than bite, look to Syrah and Grenache. For Bordeaux styles, read tasting notes carefully.

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