World Wine Regions – North America – Washington State

Washington is the nation’s second-largest wine producer (but it accounts for only one-tenth the volume of California). Only one percent of Washington’s wine grapes grow west of the Cascades, although numerous wineries make their home in the Puget Sound area, maintaining their cellar doors at convenient day trip distance from the big population centers like Seattle and Tacoma. While the state has its share of estate wines, one of the key configurations in Washington wine is the separation of growers and winemakers. Many growers came to the grape from growing other fruits.

Washington’s major wine regions to the east of the Cascades get very little rain, making irrigation a necessity. The Columbia, Walla Walla, Snake and Yakima rivers provide the water. Because of the high latitude, summer ripening days are often two hours longer than in California. The aridity causes distinct diurnal temperature swings, favoring retention of grape acidity. The grapes get through the summer all right, but every few winters extreme frosts may damage the vines. Washington wine growers have developed numerous methods for dealing with this winter frost, including the use of wind turbines, but one of the best methods is to plant grapes that handle the winters better (Merlot loses in this scenario; Riesling wins). Much of the topsoil is sandy loam studded with basalt rock specks. The phylloxera louse does not like these conditions. The aridity also helps keep major vine diseases and pests in check. As a result, Washington is one of the few areas in the world where vinifera vines can grow on their own roots. This is well and good, given that grafting wounds on vines make them particularly sensitive to winter damage.

Washington viticulture is highly mechanized. Here, wine grapes coexist with a rich array of other fruits, particularly apples. Washington’s primary grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Syrah, but the growers experiment with many wines not seen elsewhere in America, examples being Lemberger (Blaufrankisch in Austria), and the Georgian white grape Rkatsiteli. Wines tend be fruit-forward with bright acidity and noticeable tannins.

The Columbia Valley AVA takes up nearly a quarter of the state (and also spills over into Oregon). With the exception of the Columbia Gorge AVA (shared with Oregon), the Lake Chelan AVA in the state’s north, and the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA in the state’s southeast (shared with Idaho),  all the grape producing areas in eastern Washington fit within Columbia Valley. Sub-AVAs of Columbia Valley include the Ancient Lakes AVA, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, the Naches Heights AVA, the Wahluke Slope AVA, the Walla Walla Valley AVA, and the Yakima Valley AVA. Yakima in turn has its own trio of nested AVAs:  the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, the Red Mountain AVA, and the Snipes Mountain AVA.

Much of the Columbia Valley’s geology and topography is the result of the Missoula Floods (also known as the Spokane Floods or the Bretz Floods) that occurred at the end of the last ice age. This flood (released from a glacial lake near Missoula, Montana) inundated a large area leaving silt and gravel beds. These sediments formed the soils of the region.

The Columbia Gorge is marketed as “a world of wine in 40 miles” because of the variety of climates, terrains, and grape varieties in such a small space, covering two states. Grapes (the list is large) include Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.

The Lake Chelan AVA encompasses the southern and eastern shores of Lake Chelan. The lake was formed by the scraping action of ice age glaciers. The soils the glaciers left are sandy and coarse, with notable amounts of quartz and mica. The lake modifies the climate, resulting in a longer growing season and a reduced risk of frost. Italian immigrants settled in the area and began to grow wine grapes before the turn of the 20th century, but instead of becoming a wine producer, the region made a name for itself with apples, pears, peaches and cherries. Around the turn of the 21st century, wine producers became attracted by the long growing season with sunny days and lake-cooled nights. The region now has 20 wineries producing Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

The Ancient Lakes AVA gets its name from the remnants of the great Missoula flood. The flood scraped the top soils down to the basalt level and gouged out canyons called “coulees” among which many vineyards are planted today. The area sits in the eastern foothills of the Cascades, making the rain shadow of those mountains nearly complete the climate among the driest in the Columbia Valley. White grapes predominate: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.

The Horse Heaven Hills AVA borders the Yakima Valley AVA on the north and the Columbia River on the south. Elevations range from 200 feet in the south to 1,800 feet at the northern boundary. The appellation gets very little rainfall. Grapes are planted in the south-facing slopes of hills that bear the brunt of strong winds that come in from the west through the Columbia Gorge, reducing the threat of rot and fungal diseases and creating desirable vine stress that improves the concentration of the wines. The warmth of the Columbia River moderates the temperature. Washington’s largest winery, Columbia Crest, is located in the appellation. A fifth of all wine grapes in Washington are grown in Horse heaven Hills, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay.

The Naches Heights AVA is a dry plateau, west of the city of Yakima, ranging in elevation from 1200 to 2400 feet. Seven vineyards here plant red Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot), white Bordeaux varieties (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc), Rhône varieties (Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier), Italians (Barbera, Gewürztraminer, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Sagrantino and Pinot Grigio) and even Portuguese varieties (Souzao, Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Roriz.)

The Wahluke Slope AVA with 8500 vineyard acres accounts for 15% of state production. The area is isolated, warm, and very dry. The deep topsoil is largely windblown sand. Vineyards are arrayed on a broad, south-facing slope, with little variation in soil or climate among them.

The wines here are characterized by full body and prominent varietal character. Top grape varieties include Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.

The Walla Walla Valley AVA , which pokes into part of northern Oregon, is known for its iconic sweet onions, wheat production, and strawberries. Soils are good draining wind-deposited loess. During the growing season, dry Walla Walla enjoys hot days and dramatically cooler nights (because of the aridity). Wine growing began in the 19th century, declined with killing winter frosts and, of course, Prohibition, and saw a rebirth in the 1970s. Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 41% of plantings, Merlot 26%, Syrah 16%, with Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, and Viognier among a score of other varieties.

The Yakima Valley AVA has the distinction of being the first AVA in Washington State (1983). With a thousand acres of vineyards, Yakima has the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in the state, accounting for 40% of the state’s wine. The most widely planted wine grapes are Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, and Syrah. Nearly 40% of Washington State’s yearly wine production is made from Yakima Valley grapes. Yakima also produces prodigious quantities of apples, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums, as well as 80% of the hops grown in the United States. Yakima has three nested AVAs:

  • At elevations ranging from 850 feet to 3,085 feet, the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, sits much higher than the remainder of the Yakima Valley. Vineyards are typically located on ridges and terraces with good air drainage that decreases the danger of frost damage, both in winter and in early spring. Prominent grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling.
  • The Red Mountain AVA is acclaimed for its red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
  • The Snipes Mountain AVA is a high elevation area of rocky soils that, unlike the rest of Yakima, was largely untouched by the Great Missoula Flood. It specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay.

Lewis-Clark Valley has high temperatures compared to the regions that surround it. The AVA is mostly in Idaho, near the city of Lewiston. When it approved the AVA, the TTB adjusted the border of the Columbia Valley AVA to avoid any overlap. This is appropriate, since unlike the flood-affected Columbia Valley, the Lewis-Clark Valley was created when tectonic forces pushed up mountains, and the Clearwater and Snake rivers cut into those mountains. Climate in the warmest pockets of the appellation can support late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The appellation also has cooler zones where Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot do well.