Washington Wine Region: Yakima Valley AVA

Our next Washington AVA is actually it's first, Yakima Valley.  It was founded in 1983, 1 year before Columbia Valley AVA, which encompasses it.  Most of the state's wine history resides in this valley, started by an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine named Charles Schanno.  He used cuttings from an Oregon vineyard to start his own vineyard in 1869.  The torch was later passed to William B. Bridgeman, a Seattle attorney who brought about legislation, respect and modernization to Washington wine.  He drafted irrigation laws and planted his first vineyard in 1914.  After Prohibition he started Upland Winery (known today as Upland Estates) and helped create the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center which became essential to expansion of Washington wine.  The valley exploded in the early 1980's and the AVA was created!  Now let's get to more facts and some of my favorite wineries:

The Valley is shadowed by the Cascade Mountains to the west which create a rain shadow effect, making irrigation critical to vine survival.  The Yakima River runs through the region on it's way to connect with the Columbia River and flow east.  The climate is cooler there with the growing season taking up half  the year.  Along with a loam soil, which allows for drainage and contains many nutrients , the conditions make an ideal spot to plant Chardonnay, which is the most grown varietal in the region.  Other varietals include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Riesling.  The region produces around 40% of state wine and contains one third of the state's vineyards.  In addition to wine, the region produces alot of fruit like cherries, peaches, pears, plums, apples and almost 80% of all hops grown in the US- yay beer! 

Three different AVAs reside in Yakima Valley: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills.  Each of these smaller appellations contain unique character which sets them apart.  They also create borders for the Yakima Valley, making a temperate climate.

Some excellent wineries are in the valley and are centered around three towns: Yakima, Zillah and Prosser.  A few of my favorites are Côte Bonneville, Hogue Cellars, Covey Run and Kana Winery.  If you make your way out to Washington be sure to stop at these spots along with the many other great wineries and vineyards!

Washington Wine Region: Columbia Valley AVA

The Columbia Valley AVA was Washington's first American Viticultural Area (established in 1984) and is also it's largest, comprised of about 11,000 acres (1/3 of the state!).  The region also produces 99% of state wine grapes which includes Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon and Merlot (the most planted varietal), along with many others.  It's an ideal locale for producing high quality wines with it's climate and soil. 

A great majority of the AVA resides in Washington, with a small portion dipping into northeastern Oregon.  It borders the Cascade Mountains in the west, shielding it from the heavy Pacific rains.  This makes an arid environment for the Columbia River Basin and its tributaries.

Many factors create extremely favorable conditions for wine grapes.  Lack of rain water forces vine roots deep into volcanic, loamy soils and allows farmers to control growth with irrigation.  The more the vines struggle the more they concentrate on the fruit clusters, making deeper, richer wines.  Days are hot and nights are cool, giving the grapes an excellent balance between acidity and sugar.  Due to the northern latitude, Washington also has a long growing season (over 6 months) and more hours of sunlight.  This gives farmers the opportunity to harvest later during cool temperatures.  This gives the grapes more mature aromas, flavors, tannins and potential.

The fact that the valley is so massive gives many possibilities for the existence of various microclimates.  This is one of the reason why Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills and Snipes Mountain are considered uniquely distinguished geographic growing areas.  We will be talking about these regions while we navigate through Washington Wine Month!

Washington Wine Country

Washington is so diverse, it's hard to believe you can fit it all in one state!  You have rain forests, beaches and cliffs in the west, mountain ranges in the middle, and desert-like conditions in the east.  Over 60% of the population lives in or near Seattle, with the rest around larger cities like Spokane, Tacoma, and agrarian epicenters.  Washington is a leading state for agriculture in the US and third in liters of wine produced per year, only behind California and New York.

Washington contains ten American Viticultural Areas (AVA), which are regions where the grapes grown are influenced by certain climates and geographic features.  Nine of the ten are east of the Cascade Mountains and produce 99% of the state's wine grapes.  The largest is the Columbia Valley AVA, which covers about one third of the state and is shared with Oregon.  Seven different AVAs are contained within Columbia Valley: Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Lake Chelan AVA, Rattlesnake Hills AVA, Snipes Mountain AVA, Wahluke Slope AVA, Walla Walla Valley AVA, and Yakima Valley AVA, with a few more awaiting acceptance.  The Columbia Valley was accepted as an AVA first, and each of these areas were discovered to contain unique features separating them from one another.

Columbia Gorge AVA is just west of the Columbia Valley and also runs into Oregon.  It is the most diverse of all and is known as a "world of wine in 40 miles".  On the other side of the Cascades, surrounding Seattle, is the Puget Sound AVA.  Only 1% of all wine grapes are planted here, but the state's largest wineries call this home, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Andrew Will, Betz Family, Cadence, and Quilceda Creek.

Look for upcoming posts with the spotlight on each of these regions!

Washington Wine History

Washington Wine Month continues with a bit of Washington wine history.  So everyone knows that Washington has become one of the greatest wine producing states in the US, but how and when did it start?  Well, it began all the way back in 1825, when traders from the Hudson's Bay Company brought in the first vines to Fort Vancouver. 

Eventually, Italian and German immigrants brought in their own wines and produced wine in the 1860s and 70s.  Italians from Puglia brought in the Ottavianello varietal, which is related to Cinsault (a French Rhone blending grape).  This little known grape is no longer grown in Washington (though Cinsault is), but a recent indigenous grape revival has put it back into production in Puglia.  In the Ostuni DOC, wines are made up of no less than 85% of the Ottavianello varietal!

Wine production continued until Washington became one of the first states to begin Prohibition in 1916 and all Vitis Vinifera vines were lost.  After Prohibition, Concord grapes were planted, mainly by the Nawico and Pommerelle wineries, and used to create fortified sweet wine.  Finally, in the 1950s, Washington State University began to replant Vitis Vinifera vines (Grenache being the first) and test which varietals grew best in local climates and soils.  Some professors eventually banded together in 1962 to create what is now Columbia Winery, while Nawico and Pommerelle combined to form Chateau Ste. Michelle, and both began to produce premium wines. 

In the 1970s, Washington found a new home for Cabernet Sauvignon.  This grape brought them national acclaim, with Leonetti Cellar being the best example in 1978.  More notariety would come with Chateau Ste. Michelle being named Best American Winery in 1988 and five Washington wines making Wine Spectator's Top 100 for the very first time in 1989.  Today Washington has 650 licensed wineries and countinues to grow every year.  The state has a colorful wine past and a bright future!

WBC or Bust!

I'm always up for a challenge, and wineCHATr.com is putting it out there: 12 citizen wine writers are being given the opportunity to catch a free ride across Washington to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference.

I will now be writing about Washington wine for the next month plus to try to win my behind a seat on that bus!  I've been crazy about Washington wines for quite some time now and for many reasons: good quality, great value, wide range of varietals and numerous subregions.  So I will be sharing my enthusiasm with all of you about this great state for wine.  We'll run through the regions, producers, history and my favorite wines.  So sit back, put your reading glasses on, pop open a bottle and get ready to learn about Washington!