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Washington Wine Regions

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 30, 2011

Like most other wine producing areas, the state of Washington has an interesting and colorful history. Winemaking in Washington began in the 1870s with the planting of grapes on the islands of the Puget Sound. From this humble beginning, winemaking in Washington was born. Washington winemaking progressed forward until the damaging effects of prohibition curtailed wine production in the 1920s. After Prohibition serious attempts at winemaking were not attempted until the mid 1960s. During this time, enologists worked with Washington wineries on improving the quality of wine produced. Since this time Washington has not looked back and today produces some of the finest wines in the world.

Washington state is an average sized state located in the northwestern part of the United States. Most winemaking operations are contained to a large American Viticultural Area known as the Columbia Valley. The Columbia Valley consists of 10.6 million acres and is located in the southeastern portion of Washington State. Within the Columbia Valley AVA are several smaller AVAs, each with their own unique properties and characteristics. Additional AVAs exist outside of the Columbia Valley AVA but they are very small compared to the Columbia Valley AVA.

The Columbia Valley AVA can be considered a catch-all for wine producing areas in Washington. The main reason for this is that most of the additional AVAs registered in the state of Washington are contained within the Columbia Valley AVA. With this in mind, it is easy to understand how the Columbia Valley AVA was designed to promote cross-regional blending. The Columbia Valley AVA contains areas not assigned to additional AVAs. These areas consist of approximately 17,000 acres and contain some of the most varied climates and conditions Washington has to offer. Microclimates exist within the Columbia Valley AVA with the cooler climates located in the southern part of the Columbia Valley AVA. Soil conditions vary within the Columbia Valley AVA as well. Soils from infertile gravel to sand and clay are present within the Columbia Valley AVA. Finally, topography varies as well with some vineyards being planted on slopes between 70 and 1,000 feet for frost protection.

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Long before the Columbia Valley was officially established as an AVA, the area was well know for its high-quality Rieslings. To this day, some of the best Rieslings produced in the United States come from the Columbia Valley AVA. Today however, Riesling production is overshadowed by red wine production. Following a 1991 broadcast of The French Paradox on 60 minutes, a Merlot-Craze swept the United States. Vintners of Washington realized that the microclimates of Washington presented an opportunity to produce exquisite Merlot wines. Due to this fact, Merlot wines produced in Washington tend to be richer, riper and have an alcohol content similar to wine found in France. Merlot produced in Washington is also juicier and more finely structured than similar California wine. Additional red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon are also grown in the Columbia Valley AVA. The production of these additional red varieties present characteristics similar to wines found in the Bordeaux region of France. An additional variety that has gained in popularity includes Syrah featuring a style very similar to that of France's Rhone Valley. Varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Malbec, Sangiovese, Barbera, Zinfandel and Grenache are also gaining in popularity.

As mentioned earlier, the Columbia Valley AVA is a large area containing various smaller AVAs. These sub-AVAs share microclimates found within the Columbia Valley AVA as well as presenting their own unique characteristics. The AVAs include the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Rattlesnake Hills AVA, Red Mountain AVA, Snipes Mountain AVA, Wahluke Slope AVA, Walla Walla AVA and Yakima Valley AVA.

Contained immediately within the Columbia Valley AVA are the Horse Heaven Hills AVA and the Wahluke Slope AVA. The Horse Heaven Hills AVA contains some of Washington's oldest vineyards as well as some of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States. Established in 2005, Horse Heaven Hills is also the home of the grape growing estate of Champoux Vineyard. Champoux Vineyard grapes are some of the most sought after grapes on the market. The name of Champoux Vineyard has regularly appeared on several vineyard-designated wines. The Wahluke Slope AVA was established in 2006 and is the warmest and driest region in the State of Washington. This leads to a degree of consistency with the wines produced in this region. The Wahluke Slope AVA is responsible for production of roughly 20% of Washington's winemaking grapes.

The next major AVA located in the Columbia Valley AVA is the Yakima Valley AVA. The Yakima Valley AVA is oldest AVA in the State of Washington, having been established in 1983. Grapes grown in the Yakima Valley account for more than 40% of Washington State's wine production. The climate of the Yakima Valley AVA is typically cooler than the other AVAs of Washington. Soil conditions in the Yakima Valley are dominated by silt loam, which provides excellent drainage and growing conditions. Grape varieties include Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Barbera, and Syrah. Finally, the Yakima Valley AVA is divided into further sub regions including Red Mountain AVA, Rattlesnake Hills AVA and Snipes Mountain AVA.

The Walla Walla AVA is another AVA located within the Columbia Valley AVA. This AVA is interesting in that it extends outside of Washington's borders and into the State of Oregon. The Walla Walla AVA was established in 1984 and has the highest concentration of boutique wineries. Walla Wall contains an abundance of microclimates that range from both hot and cool. Vineyards are planted in soil known as loess. Loess is a wind-deposited silt that provides excellent drainage for the vine. Additional soil types include river gravel and flood plain silt. Popular grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier and Syrah.

Washington State has two AVAs that fall outside of the large Columbia Valley AVA. These AVAs are known as the Columbia Gorge AVA and the Puget Sound AVA. The Columbia Gorge AVA was established in 2004 and officially is considered to be an Oregon AVA containing approximately 180,000 acres of grapes. Topography of this region includes the natural wind tunnel of the Cascade Range. This wind tunnel is too fierce for the growth and production of grapes. Most vineyards are located on south facing slopes of the Cascade Range for optimal wind protection. Popular grape varieties include Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Puget Sound AVA is the only wine-growing region established in Western Washington. Historically the Puget Sound was where the first grape varieties were planted in Washington. Today the Puget Sound is somewhat overshadowed by the larger Columbia Valley AVA. The Puget Sound AVA was established in 1995 and is heavily influenced by a marine type climate. This climate provides the characteristics of wet winters and dry summers as well as mild temperatures. Grape varieties include Madeleine Angevine, Madeline Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

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