In the 1990’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot absolutely showed up as two of Washington State’s greatest wines, at a time when Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and other whites dominated the vineyards.
These white grapes are still prevalent in Washington State today and make good wines. However, the top tier Cabernets and Merlots are phenomenal.
The greatest Washington State Cabernets and Merlots – or blends of the two – have immense concentration. The boysenberries, blackberries, cherries and raspberries are wonderfully lush and primal.
Washington State’s Surprise Wines
Many of the world’s classic grapes can be grown in multiple places. However, certain places are home to certain grapes that can become fantastic wines. As mentioned, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot became well established by the late 1990’s. Two more grapes also became hot in Washington State.
Riesling and Syrah became known as stunning wines by the late 2,000’s. Washington State was making the best Riesling in the country, while the rich and complex Syrah was argued to be better than, or equal to, any Syrah grown anywhere else in the United States.
The Rain in Washington State
The idea that Washington State can produce great wines is at first thought, a crazy one. The State is best known for its rain. Starbucks began here, as well as many other coffeehouses. Some think this is because going for coffee is a great thing to do while it’s raining.
Most of the State’s grapes though, are grown not in the west near Seattle, but in the desert like eastern part of the state. There are more than thirty varieties of grapes grown here.
The great Cascade Mountain range, which divides the two areas, is an effective rain shield. Therefore, eastern and western Washington are vastly different.
Washington State’s AVA’s
There are thirteen AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) in Washington State.
The three most important are:
- The Columbia Valley: The Columbia Valley is massive, and includes most of the other AVA’s within them.
- Yakima Valley
- Walla Walla Valley
The other AVA’s within the Columbia Valley are:
- Red Mountain
- Horse Heaven Hills
- Wahluke Slope
- Rattlesnake Hills
- Snipes Mountain
- Lake Chelan
- Naches Heights
- Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley
The two appellations that fall outside the Columbia Valley are:
- Columbia Gorge: On the Oregon – Washington border, the Columbia Gorge was the route used by the Lewis and Clark expedition to reach the Pacific.
- Puget Sound: Puget Sound is the smallest appellation in the state and the only one on the western side of the cascades.
The Most Important Washington State Grapes and how they’re used:
- Cabernet Franc: A minor grape, but blends well with Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: A major grape that can make wines with structure and depth. The rich, balanced grape can be blended with Merlot or used alone.
- Chardonnay: a major grape, a large source for wines in Washington State, good but not extraordinary.
- Merlot: A major grape and the source of the state’s most lush and beautifully balanced wines. It’s used alone and also blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Chenin Blanc: a minor grape that has the ability to become a delicious wine
- Riesling: A very important grape, the top wines made here from Riesling are excellent. Even more modest versions can still be good, peachy and minerally. Dry, off-dry and sweet wines are made from riesling in the state.
- Sauvignon Blanc: a minor grape: the top wines made from sauvignon blanc are clean, fresh and herbal.
- Syrah: a major grape, Washington State is one of the best places in the United States for this wine variety.
- Lemberger: very minor grape, however, Washington State has the only significant planting in the United States. Traditionally grown in Germany and Austria, a very intriguing grape
Other Washington Wines to Remember
- Sparkling wines
In order, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah lead production in the state. Cabernet franc, Malbec, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc follow in terms of production.
As mentioned above with Lemberger, winemakers here also grow very small amounts of grapes that almost no one has ever heard of. Madeleine Angevine, grown in England, Siegerrebe (German) and Lemberger (called Blaufrankisch in Austria and Germany).
Lemberger makes rich, dark and spicy reds, Madeleine Angevine makes floral white wines that are extremely likeable and Siegerrebe has the ability to grow in Puget Sound (despite rainfall at 48” per year).
This area is close to Seattle and spreads over islands in the Pacific Ocean and Washington State that adjoin the sound itself.
The climate in this western part of the state is very wet. There are 45+ wineries located here that mostly buy their grapes from the drier, eastern part of the state.
Some winemakers also prefer to buy local grapes such as Madeleine Angevine, Siegerrebe, and Pinot Noir.
The icy bays around Puget Sound are home to a variety of Pacific Northwest Oysters. Three of these bays are Penn Cove, Westcott Bay, and Shoalwater Bay. Many of the oysters here bear the name of the bay they come from.
Washington State’s crisp, minerally, dry Rieslings are a perfect match for these Puget Sound oysters.
Washington State’s Wine History
The first grapes were planted in Washington State by Italian and German emigrants in the 1860’s and 1870’s. The modern wine industry here was born a hundred years later.
The number of the wineries in the state has increased dramatically. In 1960 the state had fifteen wineries. By 2012 there were over 750.
Three wines were made in the basement of a psychology professor named Dr. Lloyd Woodburne. Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Gewürztraminer held promise. Dr.Woodburne was a home winemaker along with several of his colleagues.
What started as a hobby became an endeavor that netted a commercial winery. In 1967 the first wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Riesling (known as Johannisberg Riesling) were produced.
In 1984, Associated Vintners became Columbia winery, one of the first Washington State’s wineries producing premium wines.
The Washington State Wine Industry
Wines being produced in Washington State for decades were sweet, cheap, and fortified. Two companies that eventually (after merging) became the most well-known and largest winery in Washington State came from these now unknown names.
After prohibition the companies Pommerelle and National Wine Company, made millions of gallons of the sweet, cheap, and fortified wines.
The companies eventually became Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1965.
Known as Ste. Michelle Vintners at the time, they hired the most famous United States wine consultant of the post-war era, Andre Tchelistcheff. The first varieties the winery produced were Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Semillon, and Grenache.
The following twenty years brought a trial and error type of learning. The State’s wines moved along in quality. Washington State had little in common with California or Oregon, so they were on their own in terms of the learning curve.
The climate and the geography differed so much from its wine neighbors to the south that they had to discover their best wine practices on their own.
Several cold mountain rivers – the Columbia and the Yakima, the Snake and the Walla Walla, keep eastern Washington from being all desert.
With rainfalls no more than 8 inches a year on average, the river valleys and irrigation make possible the transfer of beautiful rangeland. Wheat fields and orchards abound as well as prime vineyards.
In contrast, western Washington gets an average of 48 inches of rain per year. The dryness of eastern Washington is what gives it a distinct viticultural footprint.
Because of its northern latitude, the vineyards here get an average of two more hours of sun per day than vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Valley in California. Temperatures are not overly hot because of the latitude. The extended hours of warmth, light, and not overly severe heat, help grapes ripen progressively.
Temperature differences in day-to-night can be a blessing and a curse. The contrast in eastern Washington’s temperature can be a difference of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or more in a single day.
Cool nights mean that grapevines can temporarily shut down and rest preserving acidity in the grapes.
However, temperature drops can also be deadly to grapes. Subzero, arctic winds are the most severe threat to wineries in eastern Washington.
Temperatures can plummet in a matter of hours, causing water to freeze in the plant so quickly that the grapes will actually explode.
140 million years ago, the tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean and the North American Plate crashed together. This event resulted in an uplifted chain of highly pressurized volcanoes parallel to the coast. As a result, soils in Washington are a mixture of sand, gravel, silt and volcanic ash.
The eruptions repeated all along the northern part of the western United States.
Exactly how a wine’s flavors are influenced by the type of soil the grapes are grown in is a mystery. Winemakers consider soil as a critical factor in the character of wine.
Good soil must retain water but not enough to drown the roots. Soil can retain heat or not, reflect sunlight or not, and hold nutrients for the vine.
The soils mentioned above are described below:
- Sand: Sand drains well but does not retain water very well. Warm, airy and composed of tiny particles of weathered rocks, it is a sedimentary soil that has various iron-based minerals.
- Silt: This soil type consists of fine-grain deposits. Silt offers good water retention but doesn’t drain as well as sand.
- Gravel: Soil that is loose and pebbly and has good drainage but poor fertility. Vines planted in gravely soil must penetrate deeply to find nutrients in the sub-soil.
- Volcanic: Ninety percent of lava-based soil is basalt.
During the last ice age, about 15 million years ago, a huge ice dam froze and melted again and again. Known as the Missoula floods, the massive floods that resulted covered the entire Columbia basin of Washington, along with most of Oregon, Montana, and Idaho.
The fast-moving water deposited nutrient-poor sand, silt, and gravel as the water moved toward the Pacific Ocean.
Phylloxera and Washington State
Phylloxera is a microscopic, yellow, sap-sucking bug that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. In the late 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in Europe.
Some estimates are that between two-thirds and nine-tenths of all European vineyards were destroyed.
The damage was done to most of the vineyards in the world, including California and Oregon. The deadly insect, however, never destroyed vineyards in Washington State.
It is thought that the sandy soil and the state’s very cold winter climate kept the pests away.
There have been very few instances in Washington State when the bug has shown itself for a short period of time, probably brought in on farm equipment.
Because of this, 99% of the vineyards here are planted on their own roots instead of phylloxera-tolerant rootstock.
There is debate from winemakers as to whether this affects the flavor profile of the wine.
Some say that any slight difference in a wine’s terrior (climate, soil, and terrain) affect flavor.
Others say that no one can tell the difference between wines grown on their own roots from wines grown on rootstock.
Visiting Washington State’s Wine Country
Washington State is a far smaller wine producer than California with 43,000+ acres of grapes. California has 543,000+ acres.
As we mentioned, Washington State has thirteen appellations, with Columbia Valley being the largest. It extends over one-third of the states entire land mass. The appellation is bordered on the north by the Okanagan wilderness, near Canada, and on the south by Oregon.
The appellation is shared by the two states and on the east by the Snake River and Idaho.
Like most winegrowing regions, the larger appellation includes smaller ones within. Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla Valley and others are included within the Columbia Valley.
The Yakima Valley, within the Columbia Valley, is considered the heart of Washington State’s wine country.
Located in rural eastern Washington, the Yakima Valley is about a two and one-half hour drive from Seattle. The drive over the Cascade Mountains is well worth it and is an adventure in itself.
Some of the state’s most established wineries, including the popular “Hogue”, are located here. Many other wineries buy Yakima grapes.
Within the Yakima Valley are three smaller AVA’s:
- Rattlesnake Hills
- Snipes Mountain
- Red Mountain
Also, many small top wineries are located less than an hour’s drive from Seattle in Woodinville.
Walla Walla Valley also has some of the best wineries. One of the smallest AVA’s within the Columbia Valley, some top wineries are located here that help put Washington State on the map.
This tiny wine region in the southeastern Washington is also famous for its jumbo sized sweet onions. A delicious twenty four million pounds are harvested each year.
Like the Vidalia from Georgia and the Maui from Hawaii, Walla Walla onions are low in sulfur and so sweet you can eat them by hand just like an apple.
Chateau Ste. Michelle
Chateau Ste. Michelle is the seventh-largest winery in the United States. They farm more than 3,500 acres of vineyards in the state and contract with growers for 17,000+ acres.
Chateau Ste. Michelle with its huge financial and enological resources not only created a market for small wineries in the state but also put Washington State wine in the forefront of the wine industry.
More than half of the state’s vineyard acreage is devoted to grapes grown for Ste. Michelle, who also owns several other brands – two of which are in California’s Napa Valley. One is the famous Stags Leap Wine Cellars.
In the state of Washington there are two main regions for wine making, there is the area around Seattle, the Puget Sound, and the area around the massive Columbia Valley watershed.
The area around the Puget Sound is urban, somewhat small and spread out, and the climate is very rainy so the grapes grown there are limited. To get around this many wineries in the area import grapes from the eastern part of the state for production.
The area around the Columbia Valley is quite different. The climate is much drier and the area is very large and rural. There are three main rivers that flow through three main valleys, the Columbia, the Yakama, and the Snake rivers. These and any other smaller regions makeup the greater Columbia watershed “region”.
In fact there are eleven sub-AVA’s that combine to make up the Columbia AVA with only the Puget Sound AVA existing west of the Cascade mountain range.
In many places Washington’s Columbia Valley wines are similar to the wines of Northern Oregon, especially around the Columbia Gorge but the Washington side of the border is much larger comprised of many different unique places spanning hundreds of miles to the North, East, and West.
To learn more about the major AVA and select sub-AVAs in the state see the following pages:
► The Wine Region of the Puget Sound
► The Yakima Valley AVA
► The Walla Walla AVA
► The Horse Heaven Hills AVA
► The Wine Region of Lake Chelan