Cows, wheat, orchards and wine!
Layered with apple orchards, entrenched in wheat farming, milk and cattle production, wine production in Washington began in the mid 1970’s. Wine still relatively new in the scheme of agriculture output for Washington State and the region has a finite supply of water for irrigation. Quality over bulk quantity is regulated by irrigation needs. With the exception of approximately 80 acres of vineyard near Seattle in Puget Sound AVA, the state’s wine regions are all located to the east of the Cascades, where the mountains’ rain shadow effect makes irrigation commonplace—rainfall is often less than ten inches a year.
Eastern Washington experiences a true continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters; frost and winter freezes are serious concerns for growers. Soils consist of basalt bedrock and thin alluvial topsoil, deposited by the same Missoula Floods that washed through the Willamette Valley at the end of the last ice age. Loess is everywhere, as well as layers of sand and gravel. Why does this make a difference?
Each appellation has its own unique characteristics that allow it to be defined separately than the Columbia Valley. The factors that play major roles in defining each AVA (or appellation) are the soils, the climate impact of each region and the subtle nuances of land masses that create microclimates and impact the quality of the vines and grapes. The diversity of each appellation is as follows:
- Columbia Valley encompasses these appellations except the Puget Sound. 99% of wine grapes grown in Washington State.
- Columbia Gorge cut back by the Columbia River Gorge which alters the climate from eastern WA dessert climate to cool maritime. This is protected by a rain shadow effect from Mount Hood and Mount Adams. The heat allows for excellent Bordeaux and Rhone varietal ripening.
- The soil composition of Walla Walla Valley with its continental heat allows for excellent drainage- and heating of the vines for ripening.
- Lake Chelan has a higher elevation with lake effects that create temperate growing and ripening. The soils are also much different due to glacier aspects; we find more sand, quartz and minerals.
- Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley are canyons that were stripped away by glaciers. This low-nutrient, fast-draining soil is perfect for growing wine grapes because the vines must struggle to survive and thus focus their energy on producing high-quality fruit.
- Wahluke Slope is the driest appellation in the State; surrounded by the Columbia River and the Saddle Mountains.
- Naches Heights is situated on ancient volcanic bedrock plateau with high elevations and clay for water retention.
- Yakima Valley is Washington’s oldest wine making region and hosts 1/3 of the state’s vineyards, including Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills and Snipes Mountain. The cool nights of this valley allow for excellent acid chemistry. Silt-loam soils predominate allowing proper drainage.
- Red Mountain is a steep southwest facing slope, near the Yakima River that maintains those hot days and cool nights classic of the Yakima Valley.
- Snipes Mountain is the second smallest AVA, with elevated topography and unique soils (ardisols) not found elsewhere in the Yakima Valley AVA.
- Rattlesnake Hills sit higher than the Yakima Valley with vineyards typically located on ridges and terraces. Good air drainage avoids late spring and the early fall frost or winter kill.
- Horse Heaven Hills has a proximity to the Columbia River which creates 30% more wind while moderating the dessert temperature extremes. Steep south-facing slopes are optimum vineyard locations and providing well-drained, sandy-loam soils.
- Puget Sound is located on the western side of Washington; the maritime climate is drastically different than the continental and desert like qualities of Eastern Washington which allows for different varietals such as pinot gris and pinot noir.
The nuances of soils, climate, territorial structures and elevations create Washington’s niche in supporting and creating a diverse wine region. In forty years of production, the wine production exceeds an annual billion dollar revenue with over a billion in wine related tourism. Over 40 different varietals are now grown with 50,000 plus acres dedicated to vineyards. That creates over 20 million gallons of wine from over 850 wineries! Washington may still be fields of wheat and cow farms, but vineyard production is a growing crop commodity.
For more details read below:
The Columbia Valley is the largest appellation in Washington State. It encompasses all other AVA regions except the Puget Sound and is located in Eastern Washington. The Columbia Valley contains 99% of wine grapes grown in Washington State – 43,000 acres (16,207 hectares). Vineyards are planted on predominately south-facing slopes, increasing solar radiation in summer and promoting air drainage in winter. AVA 1984 Many wineries list only Columbia Valley as they source grapes from multiple vineyards.
Columbia Gorge is the southernmost Washington appellation. The Columbia Gorge wine region is defined by the Columbia River Gorge, a narrow passage that marks the dramatic transition from eastern desert to cool maritime climate as the Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The region encompasses the corridor flanking the river in both Washington and Oregon and includes the Columbia Gorge and the southwestern part of the Columbia Valley American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). As this region lies to the east of the summits of nearby Mount Hood and Mount Adams, it is in rain shadow of these Cascade volcanoes. The region is significantly drier than the Portland metropolitan area to the west. Elevation in the region varies considerably, increasing as one travels from the Columbia River into the plateaus on either side, and the strong Columbia Gorge winds also play a factor in the region’s climate. Eastern vineyards have a continental high desert climate with just 10 inches of annual rainfall but plentiful sunshine to ripen hot-weather Bordeaux, Rhone and Italian varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera. AVA 2004 Cascade Cliffs and Syncline Cellars are a few of our favorites.
Walla Walla Valley is primarily loess, cobblestone river gravels, dark basalt stones, and beneath the loess are coarser layers of sand and gravel. The sand and gravel were deposited by catastrophic, glacial floods that swept through this region about 15,000 years ago. Loess is derived soils which are essentially unconsolidated, unstratified calcareous silt. It allows for excellent drainage. Dark basalt stones soak up the warmth of the sun before releasing it back at the vines after twilight and provide rich in iron, calcium, magnesium and other minerals that fuel remarkable flavors. The varietals are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Grape growing began in the Walla Walla Valley in the 1850s by Italian immigrants. Walla Walla Valley is made up of over 100 wineries and more than 1,600 acres (648 hectares) of vineyards. AVA 1984 Reininger is one of our favorites out of Walla Walla
Lake Chelan has a higher elevation and more temperate climate than the more southern AVAs also contained within the Columbia Valley. Due to the ice age glaciers that formed Lake Chelan, the soil surrounding it has distinctive properties such as coarse, sandy sediment with notable amounts of quartz and mica. These soil distinctions result in grapes with discernable textures, minerals, and nutrients. The AVA is also distinguished by a significant “lake effect” that creates mild and favorable temperatures for surrounding areas, resulting in a longer growing season and a reduced risk of frost. Primary varietals grown are Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. AVA 2009 Nefarious Cellars is a must check out!
Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley is located with the Beezley Hills to the north; the eastern edge of the Quincy Basin defined by the manmade Winchester Wasteway canal to the east; the Frenchman Hills to the south; and the western shoreline of the Columbia River creates the border to the west. The famous Gorge Amphitheatre resides on the western edge of the AVA. The Ancient Lakes are canyons that were outlet points in the Quincy Valley for the floodwaters, which essentially stripped away the soil to barren scabland. In the ensuing centuries, wind has blown in sand that has created the soil in the Ancient Lakes and elsewhere in the Columbia Valley. This low-nutrient, fast-draining soil is perfect for growing wine grapes because the vines must struggle to survive and thus focus their energy on producing high-quality fruit. Varietals are predominately Riesling and Chardonnay. AVA 2012 Milbrant Vineyards, Jones Vineyards, and Cave B are all located in this canyon.
Wahluke Slope is naturally bounded by the Columbia River to the west and south, by the Saddle Mountains on the north, and on the east by the Hanford Reach National Monument. It has the driest, warmest climates in the state, allowing nearly complete control of vine vigor and ripening through irrigation. AVA 2005 Milbrant Cellars also grows here.
Naches Heights is the first AVA to be recognized as fully sustainable. It is located within the Columbia Valley on an ancient volcanic bedrock plateau; Naches Heights is above the level of the Missoula Floods, at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 2,100 feet. The boundaries of the Naches Heights are the Naches River to the north and east; Cowiche Creek to the south and west; and the lower Tieton River on the west. The soil is comprised of windblown soil, also known as loess, which is heavy in clay and helps the soil to retain water. Around 10 to 13 inches of rain fall annually in the Naches Heights region. It is considered a cooler region for Washington State. AVA 2012. Naches Heights Vineyards as well as Harlequin are located in this area.
Yakima Valley is Washington’s oldest wine making region and hosts 1/3 of the state’s vineyards with Chardonnay varietal prominent. Yakima Valley vineyards produce wines that are characteristically rich and well-developed, due to the long and consistent growing season. With cool nights, warm days and controlled water, Yakima Valley vineyards tend to have a longer growing days and season compared to other wine regions. These regional growing characteristics help to develop fully mature fruit whose acid chemistry maintains balance during the cool nights. Silt-loam soils predominate allowing proper drainage necessary to keep vine’s vigor under control. As an appellation it hosts sub-regions of Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Horse Heaven Hills. AVA 1983 Lobo Hills and Chinook Cellars are here in Yakima.
Red Mountain is not necessarily a mountain, more of a steep slope, which faces southwest near the Yakima River. More than 15 wineries are located in the Red Mountain AVA, with many additional Washington wineries sourcing grapes from Red Mountain’s premiere growers. The area has a desert climate with average yearly rainfall of five inches per year. During the growing season daytime temperatures average 90 °F (32 °C) with night time temperatures dropping below 50 °F (10 °C). The varietals grown here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. (Trade tasting 3/23) AVA 2001 Guardian Cellars sources his grapes here!
Snipes Mountain is the second smallest AVA in Washington, bigger only than Red Mountain, and home to six wineries. While the Snipes Mountain AVA lies entirely within the boundaries of the Yakima Valley AVA its uniqueness comes from an elevated topography and unique soils not found elsewhere in the Yakima Valley AVA. In the 1850s a rancher named Ben Snipes built a house and settled his cattle operation on a Yakima Valley mountain north of the Yakima River, later known as Snipes Mountain. Snipes vineyards grow more than 30 different wine grape varieties and the fruit is used in more than 25 wineries. Vineyards have been planted on Snipes Mountain and Harrison Hill since 1914. Washington State’s second oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines have been producing grapes on Harrison Hill for more than 40 years. AVA 2009 Upland Estates is here and DeLille sources from Harrison Hill Vineyard located here too.
Rattlesnake Hills encompasses an expanse of hills running east to west along the northern point of the Yakima River and south of Moxee Valley; the Rattlesnake Hills AVA lies within both the established Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley appellations. Beginning at an elevation of 850 feet and rising up to 3,085 feet, the viticultural area sits higher in elevation than the surrounding Yakima Valley region. The first commercial vineyards in the region date back to 1968. Vineyards are typically located on ridges and terraces and in areas with good air drainage to avoid late spring and early fall frost and winter kill. AVA 2006. Silver Lake and Porteus are here.
Horse Heaven Hills is located in Southeast Washington with a total area is 570,000 acres (230,679 hectares) of which about 10,130 acres (4,099 hectares) planted to grapes. It represents 25% of Washington’s total grape production. Proximity to the Columbia River creates 30% more wind while moderating temperature extremes, providing steep south-facing slopes for optimum vineyard locations and providing well-drained, sandy-loam soils. Elevations range from 1,800 feet at the area’s northern boundary to 300 feet at its southern. Outstanding sites that have been developed in this area include Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge, Champoux Vineyards and The Benches at Wallula Vineyard. Growers have raised grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills region since 1972. AVA 2005 McKinnley Springs is located here.
Puget Sound is located on the western side of Washington, which is divided by the Cascade Mountain ranges that run North and South along the coast. Its temperate climate rarely suffers from prolonged freezes in winter and enjoys long mild and dry summers. However it is a maritime climate and drastically different than the continental and desert like qualities of Eastern Washington. Semi-permeable cemented subsoil allows the deep-rooted vinifera vines to survive the late summer soil water deficit. Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe and Muller-Thurgau are the predominant varietals. Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir also show promise in this appellation. AVA 1995 Bainbridge Island Winery, San Juan Winery and Vashon Winery are all great examples.
Sommelier & Wine Writer