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Northwest Wine: Yakima Valley remains cradle of Washington wine

Grapes ripen at Harrison Hill, a Yakima Valley vineyard near Sunnyside. It was established in 1914, and these vines date to the early 1960s. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)
Grapes ripen at Harrison Hill, a Yakima Valley vineyard near Sunnyside. It was established in 1914, and these vines date to the early 1960s. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

The Yakima Valley is, by definition, the cradle of the Washington wine industry.

This wide swath of land that stretches from the foothills of Mount Adams in the west to Red Mountain in the east is home to some of the state’s early plantings and many of the state’s most famous vineyards. It is here where Walter Clore, the “father of Washington wine,” lived and conducted the research that launched the industry. Here is where some of the state’s earliest wineries got their start, and where some of the state’s largest wineries operate today.

Long considered an agricultural mecca in Washington, 80 percent of the U.S. hop production is grown here, as well as a large number of crops, including orchard fruit, mint and juice grapes.

In 1983, it became Washington’s first federally recognized wine grape region. At 709,000 acres in size, it is completely within the borders of the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area. Most don’t realize California’s famous Napa Valley could easily fit within the Yakima Valley. Like the Napa Valley, which has 16 sub-appellations, the Yakima Valley has subregions, including Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and the Rattlesnake Hills.

Here are a few examples of wines using Yakima Valley grapes. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or purchase directly from the winery.

Eye of the Needle Winery 2013 Reserve Merlot, Columbia Valley, $30: While the Eye of the Needle reserve Cab comes from Stillwater Creek Vineyard on the Royal Slope, this Woodinville Warehouse District winery used historic Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley for its two barrels of reserve Merlot. Its complexity begins with the first whiff, which gathers up hints of chalkboard dust, clove, black cherry, bittersweet chocolate and mint. Black currant and cordial cherry flavors dominate, and the structure shows tremendous balance. Soft tannins and ripe raspberry acidity connect with a lovely herbal note in the finish. Bob Bullock’s shrewd work as a negoçiant is on display year after year at the country’s largest wine competition, the San Francisco Chronicle, and in 2018 this wine earned a gold medal at the Sonoma judging.

Three of Cups Winery 2013 Le Vertu Red Wine, Yakima Valley, $30: They couldn’t get away with making this wine in Bordeaux, but on Woodinville’s Artisan Hill, Mike Metheny relished the opportunity to be creative in his debut vintage by bottling a blend of varieties that could get approved in Provence. He blended Cabernet Sauvignon (50 percent) from Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain with Syrah (25 percent) from nearby Emory Vineyard and Grenache (25 percent) from Lonesome Spring Ranch, a short drive up the Yakima River. Aromas of poached plums, chai spices and fresh-baked panettone lead to smooth, creamy and juicy textures of blackberry, plum and cherry. Fine-grained tannins and dark chocolate are capped by black currant syrup.

Cloudlift Cellars 2014 Ascent Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $28: Wood craftsman Tom Stangeland shifted the focus of his Cabernet Franc program from the Horse Heaven Hills to the Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills in 2014, and his budding relationship with Wise Brothers Vineyard near Elephant Mountain yields rock-solid results. There’s a sense of opulence from start to finish as aromas of black currant, blueberry, toast and chocolate lead to round flavors of blackberry and black cherry wash over the top of smooth and sweet tannins. This Georgetown winemaker shows skill by balancing the boldness of Merlot (18 percent) and Petit Verdot (6 percent) while removing herbaceousness from the equation.

Armstrong Family Winery 2014 Dineen Vineyard Petit Verdot, Yakima Valley, $38: Pat Dineen and the Rawn brothers grow grapes for more than 30 wineries in Washington state, and their higher-elevation site in the Rattlesnake Hills above the Yakima Valley produces a sturdy snapshot of this lesser-known Bordeaux red variety that’s most often used as a blender. Tim Armstrong, moved his family to Walla Walla last year, tailors this for his wine club, and it’s massive, cellar-worthy and compelling. Enjoy this with lamb, short ribs and burgers.

San Juan Vineyards 2016 Pinot Gris, Yakima Valley, $17: Puget Sound winemaker Chris Lawler took this fruit Sept. 15 from Crawford Vineyard near Prosser and ushered it into a crisp wine that’s meant for seafood and shellfish. Aromas of dusty starfruit and dried apricot are matched on the palate, which is finished with citrusy notes.

Telaya Wine Co. 2016 Grenache Blanc, Yakima Valley, $25: Earl and Carrie Sullivan continue to develop relationships with some of the top growers in the Pacific Northwest for their Boise-area winery, and Dick Boushey remains one of the leading viticulturists in Washington. His vineyard in the Yakima Valley has a well-earned reputation for Rhône Valley varieties, and Grenache Blanc isn’t easy to find or work with. It spent 10 months in neutral oak barrels, making for vibrant aromas of white peach, honeydew melon, orange blossom, furfural and an abundance of gooseberry.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.


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