Washington Wine - Weather & Water
Many are familiar with the wet weather climate of Washington’s Seattle area, but take a trip across the Cascades and the weather patterns are the antithesis of the western slope. At first glance, eastern Washington seems like an unlikely place to grow grapes with less than 10 inches of rainfall annually and an arid desert climate. However, on closer inspection, the Columbia river can be seen carving its way through the region, making the task of garnering water for irrigation almost irrelevant. Eastern Washington's desert climate is due in large part to the Cascadian Mountain rain shadow - where the clouds and precipitation coming off of the Pacific coast slam into the Cascades and are forced to dump their moisture, instead of carrying it over the range and bringing the precipitation to the eastern slope. So it's up to the Columbia River, along with the Yakima and Snake Rivers, to carry ultra pure Cascadian Mountain water to the vast vineyard lands of the Columbia Valley and beyond.
Washington Wine Country Soils: With the water issue taken care of, the focus can turn to the general location of Washington’s wine country. Specifically, the region is situated in the Pacific Northwest at roughly the same latitude as the famed Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France, minus the maritime climate for Bordeaux and sans the often unpredictable continental climate found in Burgundy. A topographical phenomenon known as the Yakima Fold Belt was created by shifting plate tectonics. Basically, these shifting plates resulted in wrinkles in the earth's crust that formed the majority of the east-west running hillside slopes and ridges in central Washington, where the lion's share of the state's vines reside. The soil composition is an interesting mix of volcanic basalt, sand, loess (a combination of silt and sand) and gravel in areas that offer reminders of dramatic flood and water activity from days gone by.
Washington Wine Grape Varieties: Currently Washington maintains eleven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that give rise to over 30 grape varietals. While red wine grapes muster just over half of Washington’s total output, their white wines are a vital key to the region’s success. Washington State has earned a stellar red wine reputation for their Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The region’s white wine stars continue to be Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The warm days and cool, crisp nights allow the grapes to express true varietal fruit characteristics and keep acidity at optimal levels - making Washington wines among the most food-friendly wines around.
Washington Wine Country Regions & Appellations
Yakima Valley AVA: The Yakima Valley, just south of the towns of Ellensburg and Yakima on Hwy 82, has the honor of being Washington’s first designated AVA. Established in 1983, this growing region has an average elevation of 1,000 feet and is considered a cool-climate zone. Half of Washington’s wine production comes from the Yakima Valley. Chardonnay reigns queen of the Yakima Valley, followed by both warm weather-loving grapes, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc also stake quite a claim on the Yakima Valley. Wineries to look for include: Hogue Cellars, Snoqualmie Vineyards, Mercer Estates and Kiona Vineyards,
Link: Yakima Valley
Walla Walla Valley AVA: With just under 2,000 acres of vineyards planted and over 100 wineries calling the region home, Walla Walla is on the fast-track for Washington wines. Wineries that source grape from this region include: Canoe Ridge, Seven Hills Winery, Chateau Rollat Winery, Cayuse Vineyards, L'Ecole Nº 41, Leonetti Cellars, Woodward Canyon, Seven Hills, and Pepper Bridge.
Link: Walla Walla Valley Wine
The Columbia Valley AVA: This is the "mothership" appellation of Washington wine country, with eight of the state’s eleven appellations tucked into the expansive borders of the Columbia Valley AVA. This massive growing region will likely contain more AVAs in the future as nuances of the various slopes and microclimates become more defined. It's no surprise that the Columbia Valley also happens to be the most well-known and the largest of Washington's growing areas at just under 11 million acres. The Columbia Valley begins at the Oregon border and stretches in a loose triangular shape to the Idaho border, before moving north towards Lake Chelan. The celebrity grapes of the Columbia Valley are Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds and Riesling and Chardonnay for the white wines. Key Columbia Valley wineries to look for are: Woodward Canyon Winery, Gordon Brothers, Columbia Crest, Columbia Winery, Pacific Rim, L'Ecole No 4, Covey Run, and Fidelitas.
Link: Columbia Valley Wine
Puget Sound AVA: Established in 1995, as the name suggests this AVA encompasses the growing region that surrounds the Puget Sound and is the only Washington AVA west of the Cascades. This is also Washington wine country’s sole AVA with a distinct maritime climate. Riesling and Pinot Gris can be grown rather well in the cooler, wetter climate of the Puget Sound AVA, but most of the 50+ wineries in the region source their grapes from eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Link: Puget Sound