Washington's Great Blonde Hope?

Dessert wines.

Two years ago, some friends of mine "liberated" a bushel (or 12) of shriveled semillon grapes from dormant vines near Yakima and accidentally made one of the best late-harvest dessert wines in my memory. A remnant of the vibrant 2005 vintage, this sweet young thing—despite being made by beginners—revealed an expansive spectrum of fruit, spice, and flora. I've been lucky enough to taste this wine as it's developed, and ever since, I've been chasing after Washington blondes to reconstruct the experience. Blonde dessert wines are one of the best things we do in this state, and with all the company we entertain at the holidays, this is the time of year to try them. Funnily enough, they're not the most popular thing on the shelf. Part of the problem is that there's no rhyme or reason to the shapes and labels of the bottles, and the dessert section contains too many names and places for the average consumer to keep track. When I was selling wine, I began to stereotype these wines as blondes, reds, and brunettes in order to give customers at least some small limb on which to hang. Blondes, which are made from white-wine grapes, take to fruity dessert analogies. For example, some Washington riesling dessert wines are as light and tart as lemon cream, while late-harvest semillons can remind me of pineapple upside-down cake or baked apricots. If you describe to a retailer what dessert you are in the mood for, he or she is more apt to pick out a blonde dessert wine you'll enjoy. What makes Washington's blondes pretty and full of personality is the climate of Eastern Washington, whose cool nights and dry, hot afternoons allow grapes to achieve insane ripeness while keeping plenty of acidity. The cool nights act like a dowsing of cold water after a sauna for the grapes, without which the wines would taste like plain old candy. Apex II's 2004 late-harvest semillon ($10) demonstrates this phenomenon, saturated with flavors of dried apricot and baked apple and punctuated by a jolt of vitalizing acidity. The semillon also gives off an incredible scent of late summer blossoms like honeysuckle. A wine that could get you drunk on aromatics alone, Forgeron Cellar's late-harvest gewürztraminer ($14) is another vibrant wine from the brazenly ripe 2005 vintage. Inhaling its rose-petal, tropical, orange-zest perfume conveys a certain happiness that only a beachside massage and tropical drink can bestow. Chateau Ste. Michelle makes several decadent riesling dessert wines that would make even a German tear up. Its 2005 late-harvest white riesling ($40) under the "Ethos" label trades tropical for mythical, with lavish, honeyed fruit tones and an intricate, spicy aroma. Two other local sweet potables of note: Kiona's various dessert wines and the late-harvest wines from McCrea Cellars. One 375-milliliter bottle of dessert wine holds around 12 ounces and serves 6 to 10 people; most dessert wines are so rich that a nip is enough. All the Seattle wine shops I cased had at least a handful of Washington blondes on the shelf. In addition, many wineries make a small amount of dessert wine, only to sell them to their e-mail list or out of the winery. Like Washington peaches in August, get them while you can. mdutton@seattleweekly.com

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