Washington’s 11th and newest American Viticultural Area – the Lake Chelan viticultural area – was officially approved on May 29.
Located at the far northwest corner of the sprawling Columbia Valley AVA, Lake Chelan includes just 15 wineries and 265 acres of vineyard. The first modern vineyard plantings were done in 1998, and a number of growers recall that as recently as 2001 they were advised by a U.S. government official that they were “wasting their money” on wine grapes – they would never survive the winters.
In fact, the region’s vineyards benefit from what is called the “lake effect.” In the detailed petition for AVA status prepared by Dr. Alan Busacca, evidence was offered that shows that the Lake Chelan Valley has one of the more moderate climates in the state, with an average of just seven days a year above 95 degrees (the temperature at which grapevines begin to shut down) and far less severe temperature extremes in the winter.
The region has other assets as well, including abundant water, glacial soils and a remarkable range of microclimates. But the biggest asset by far is tourism. “The Wine, The Lake, The Life” boasts the Lake Chelan Wine Valley brochure ( www.lakechelanwinevalley.com). Real estate is booming and during the brief but intense summer season, most tasting rooms are open seven days a week.
So, how are the wines? Considering that the oldest vineyards are just a decade old, it’s safe to say that it’s really early in the game. But more and more of the wineries are focusing on homegrown fruit, and the results are very encouraging. As expected, aromatic white wine grapes such as riesling, gewürztraminer, viognier and pinot gris show very well. But so do many red varieties, especially syrah and merlot. Early trials with cabernet franc, pinot noir, malbec and sangiovese are promising, and still more exotic experiments (grenache, barbera, nebbiolo and tempranillo!) may yet prove viable.
You may have seen a few of these wines, most notably from Tsillan Cellars and Vin du Lac, who actively market their wines outside of the region. Vin du Lac’s LEHM riesling and pinot gris are especially good. But most Chelan wineries sell almost everything they make to tasting room and mailing list customers. The biggest, Lake Chelan Winery, has a 3,000-square-foot gift shop and does outdoor barbecues seven nights a week. Don’t miss its extraordinary sweet gewürztraminer, and the Kludt Family reserve wines. Nearby Benson Vineyards just opened a new tasting room and visitors center on 28 acres, offering breathtaking views of the lake. Among a wide variety of estate-grown wines, look for the tangy viognier and pinot gris, and the nicely concentrated winemaker’s reserve syrah.
Four Lakes Winery was still building its new tasting room when I toured a few days ago, but it is due to open (with a wedding) by the time you read this. It occupies the top of a steep knoll, and is built to resemble a Forest Service lookout station, with a wraparound deck offering drop-dead views in all directions. Just down the road is Wapato Point Cellars, offering a very pretty Chelan Nouveau pinot noir. Tildio Winery and Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards, also on the north side of the lake, are small, family-owned, good-humored operations whose proprietors are always there to greet you. Be sure to try Tildio’s estate riesling and syrah, as well as their Stride Bordeaux blend. I especially admired Hard Row’s delightful pinot noir rosé.
One of the great things about wine touring in Lake Chelan is that there are no long drives between stops. On the south side of the lake, clustered together just a few miles outside of downtown Chelan, are Tsillan Cellars, Tunnel Hill Winery, Nefarious Cellars, Chelan Estate and Karma Vineyards. Tsillan and Karma have restaurants on-site and spacious grounds to stroll. Nefarious offers outstanding syrahs from its Defiance and Rocky Mother vineyards, a lovely riesling from its Stone’s Throw vineyard, and a lineup of wines that is my favorite in the region.
What all these new wineries have going for them already is the purity of fruit flavor that Lake Chelan climate and soils can deliver. The region’s apple, pear and cherry orchards give a clue – this is a place that can really ripen fruit. Vintners seem to appreciate that and the elegance that a cooler climate and slightly longer ripening curve can bring to wines. They rarely over-oak these wines. Except for an occasional oaky chardonnay, what I found throughout were wines with lovely perfumed aromas, steely acids, bright and clean fruit flavors and plenty of food appeal.
More information on lodging, dining and recreational activities can be found online at www.lakechelan.com or www.cometothelake.com, or by phoning the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce at (800) 4-CHELAN.