The Emerald City
When I think of Washington state, I think of Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Pike's Market, and Starbucks. The grunge scene started there, there are great restaurants, My friend Jim lives there and I don't get to see him enough. Eventually my thoughts drift to wine. Washington state is afterall the second leading producer of wine in the United States. Yes, I just said that, they are second. Surprised me when I heard that too. Washington has 31K acres of vineyards and the state boasts over 500 wineries.
Despite Seattle's reputation for high levels of rainfall, once you go East of the Cascade mountain range, you experience a rain shadow. For those of you who read my Alsace post, this is the same concept. The mountains take the rainfall, leaving little to none for the area to their East. Thus, most of Washington wines grow in a desert. This Desert leaves a very dry climate, and thus, like in any desert, Washington experiences Hot days and cool nights producing good stress on the grape vines. Second Phyloxera has never found its way to this desert, and thus, the vines of Washington exhibit the purest expression of the grapes planted. Merlot tastes a bit more Merlot like, because not only is it Merlot, but it is still Merlot planted on Merlot roots. There has NEVER been a need for grafted Vinifera in Washington. This allows the purest expression of all of the varietals planted in the state.
Because of the diurnal shifts (Warm days and cool nights) fruit in Washington is able to predictably achieve ripeness. The cool nights also allow for the fruit to maintain its crisp acidity. This allows for a great combination of well concentrated ripe fruit, and acid that allows the wines of Washington to be paired easily with most foods.
In 1987 Washington created the Washington wine commission, and 12 years later in 1999 the Washington Wine Quality Alliance was formed to increase the consistency and standards for labeling and in wine making itself. Later in 2003, the Washington Wine Institute developed a 2 and 4 year educational program to give necessary training to the people of the state, to ensure a well educated workforce for the rapidly growing industry.
Washington is broken into 13 distinct AVAs with all but one coming to the East of the Cascade mountain range. The Puget Sound AVA is near Seattle, West of the mountains and thus sees an average rainfall of 50 inches of rain a year. East of the mountains they are lucky to see 8 inches.
We will start our tour East of the mountains in the Columbia Valley. Established in 1984, this is the largest AVA covering 11M acres and representing 30 percent of Washington's total land. The Columbia Valley holds 99 percent of the wine grapes grown in WA. Within the Columbia Valley AVAs of Red Mountain, Yakima, Walla Walla, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, and Lake Chelan all exist. The main grapes of the region are Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet.
The Columbia Gorge, not to be confused with the Columbia Valley, extends into Oregon. This AVA hugs the white Salmon river and extends up to the Columbia Valley Appellation. Columbia gorge has 500 planted acres of vines and top growers in the region include many that you see in Alsace. Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris in the cooler parts of the region, and high quality Red Wines in the warmer regions. The Columbia Gorge is a small area with many changes in Terroir. Changes in climate, soil, geology, and topography cause many micro climates that allow for tremendous grape diversity. Growers in the region produce everything from light whites to Zinfandel. The further east one travels, the less rainfall and the more sunshine. Western vineyards have a cool marine climate ideal for growing pinot noir, gewurz, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. Eastern vineyards have a desert climate where Bordeaux, Rhone, and Italian varietals rule. Soils change just as rapidly from red volcanic to mud to basalt, and finally the altitudes of the vineyards vary vastly as well going as high as 2000 feet above sea level.
Yakima Valley was established in 1983 and is Washington's OLDEST wine region. (AMAZING) It includes 16K acres of grapes and accounts for a third of the grapes grown in the state. Yakima valley is most known for Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Syrah. Silt-loam soils are the major soil type allowing for great drainage, and the growing season is long with many days of sunshine and only 8 inches of rain yearly.
Walla Walla Valley was established in 1984 but grape growing has occurred there since the 1850s lead largely by Italian Immigrants. Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading varietal, but there is plenty of Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah as well. Gewurz, Cab Franc, Sangiovese, Grenache, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauv Blanc, Semillion, and Viognier are grown too. Basically if you can turn it into wine, it is being grown in Walla Walla.Rainfall is low but greater than Yakama at 12 inches. The soil is largely Loess and still drains well.
Horse Heaven Hills gets a lot of street cred for making incredible wines.This area is known for steep South facing slopes that allow for high quality wines. Established in 2005, HHH as it is frequently called is bordered on the North by the Yakima Valley and on the south by the Columbia River. It is located in Southeast Washington and has 570K Acres but only 10K planted acres (25% of Washington's Production) Grape varieties are all over the board with 37 distinct grape types planted. Most popular are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chard, Riesling and Syrah. The wind is heavy, the sunshine is plentiful, and temperatures are kept moderate due to the river as well as the winds. Most famous in the area is the Champoux vineyards but also present are Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge and the Wallula Gap Vineyards. Also of note that the first 3 100 point wines from Washington all came from this region.
The Wahluke Slope is the driest part of the wine growing regions in the state. The warm dry climate allows for Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chennin Blanc to grow. Irrigation is necessary to ensure vine growth.
Rattlesnake Hills is known for high altitude vineyards. Established in 2006, it is located four miles South and East of the Yakima. 1566 acres are planted. The top wines producse are Cab Sauf, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling. Vineyards can be planted at over 3000 feet above sea level in RSH. Cold is a concern here in the winter and thus vineyards are typically located on terraces with good air movement to avoid frost kill.
Red Mountain has huge diurnal shifts from 90 degrees by day to 50 degrees at night. Established in 2001 it is located just East of the Yakima Valley. Despite the name, it is really not a mountain at all. It is similar to a Cote in France. A steep slope that allows for good sun exposure. Gapes grown here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
Puget sound is beautiful. Some of my greatest memories of Seattle include sitting at a fish house on the Puget sound, watching the sunset. It is quite beautiful. As an AVA, the Puget sound was established in 1995. The temperate climate does not allow the winter temps seen elsewhere in the region. It is warm and dry in the summer. Vines here reach their roots way down into the soil to allow them to survive the dry hot summers. There is a lot of rain, up to 30 inches, but almost all of it falls in the dormant months. Thus, by the end of the summer, it is often that plants are facing a water deficit. This region is known for a grape called Madeleine Angevine which is a type of Riesling.Siegerebbe, and Muller Thurgau. Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are also starting to show promise.
Lake Chelan is one of Washingtons most sought after summer vacation spots. It is also the 11th AVA to be recognized in the state. It sits in the Columbia Valley AVA but it has a higher elevation and more temperate climate than most of the AVAs to the south. The soil holds a lot of the interest in the area. Ice age glaciers brought rocks, sand, quartz and Mica giving the wines interesting texture and great minerality. The weather is temperate due to the lake thus reducing the risk of frost. Top grapes grown include Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewuztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
In 2009 Snipes Mountain became the newest AVA in Washington. Rocky soils, high elevations, and temperate climates lend this area to great grape growing.. It is the second smallest winer growing region in WA, however over 30 grape varieties can be found in the region. It lies in the middel of the Yakima Valley but is unique due to the soils and elevated topography.
That is pretty much a whirlwind of Washington. More to come in coming weeks, but hope you enjoyed.