When we think about great wine tasting in Washington, we think of Walla Walla, Yakima and Spokane, but there is a lot more that goes into the names of locations that produce wine. Where that grape comes from has meaning. What is the climate, soil composition, altitude and rainfall, among other characteristics?
When a growing area is uncommon enough from other areas, it is given an American Vinicultural Area designation. Washington now has 14 such growing areas. To begin to understand an AVA, it might be best to look at France and its famous AVA equivalence. The country’s growing regions include names such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.
In the U.S., for a wine to be labeled with a specific AVA, 85% of the wine must originate from that region. Some of Washington’s famous AVAs include Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla Valley and Lake Chelan. Let us look at what makes each stand out.
Terroir is the French term for soil or the quality of the soil. The soils of Eastern Washington’s revered AVAs are similar in that they have a basalt base from ancient volcanic activity with a mix of silts deposited by the Missoula floods during the last ice age and winds over time.
That novel mix of climate and soil is what gives the grapes from these areas their distinct character loved the world over. Comparable to some of the great AOP/AOCs in France, our vineyards are nestled between the 46th and 50th parallels.
It might be a little surprising, but Yakima Valley and not Walla Walla Valley was the first recognized AVA in the Pacific Northwest and also is the largest growing area. The warm, arid climate hosts significant plantings of chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and you will find more than 40 varieties grown here. In total, the Yakima Valley grows one-third of all wine grapes in the state.
Red Mountain, located outside Richland, is actually a sub-AVA of Yakima Valley. To call this a mountain might be a bit of a stretch, but the wines produced from this area have received global attention. Growers in this desert climate focus on cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. It is an easy drive from Spokane to explore the 15 wineries that call Red Mountain home.
Grapes began growing in the Walla Walla Valley more than 150 years ago, and this is probably our most famous growing region. It also is cooler and has more precipitation than most of Washington’s AVAs. Walla Walla is known for award-winning reds. In addition to cabernet sauvignon, you will find significant plantings of syrah, pinot noir and cabernet franc.
One should not overlook some great whites grown here, as well, including pinot gris, sauvignon blanc and riesling, among others. It should be noted that nearly one-third of this AVA resides in Oregon.
An overlooked wine-tasting destination is the Lake Chelan AVA. It is one of the newer growing regions and one of the most beautiful. Vinifera plantings began in earnest here in 1998 and feature syrah, pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. Locals will tell you about the “lake effect,” which allows for a longer growing season, and growing variations between the north and south shore vineyards. It’s worth a trip.
In Spokane, our elevation does not allow for an AVA designation. Our local wineries source from a variety of growers and AVAs to make their vintages. Jim van Löben Sels of Arbor Crest Wine Cellars shared a little about their sourcing: “We have stayed centralized to the Columbia Valley’s original AVA.”
Next time you go wine tasting, ask the winery about where they get their grapes. They will be happy to tell you.
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