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Washington Branches Out

Once known for world-class Merlot, Washington state's wineries are taking on the world. That shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the state's burgeoning wine industry is on about the same latitude as two of France's most famed wine regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy.

The number of wineries in the state increased by more than 400 percent in the past decade. Today, Washington boasts 460 wineries and 30,000-plus acres of vineyards, making it second in wine production only to California.

Obviously something remarkable is going on here, and it's happening fast.

After initially achieving prominence with wines made from Merlot -- and many critics still consider Washington’s Merlot to be the best in the country -- award-winning wines have been made from the state's Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Old World-style blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc also became popular.

But now, Washington's vintners are finding that less-common grape varieties are producing great wines due to the soil and climate of the state. Washington is blessed with lots of volcanic soil, which is resistant to the root pest called phylloxera that plagues vineyards in other states. That makes it easy to try more demanding grape varieties. More important, a combination of generally warm days, cool nights, and adequate water lead to grapes with both good sugar content and acidity -- essential for making well-balanced, quality wines.

Examples of the new varieties being planted include Sangiovese and Nebbiolo (the fathers of Chianti, and Barolo and Barbaresco, respectively, in Italy), Syrah (the signature red grape of the northern Rhône Valley in France) and Viognier (famous for the tropical fruit-flavored white wines of Condrieu in France).

Due to the near-ideal growing conditions of many areas in Washington, Riesling (the great grape of southwest Germany) has found a second home here and is being used to make outstanding wines. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are making a good showing as well.

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