It’s my great pleasure to be writing this monthly column for Discover the Pacific Northwest. I’m a lifelong resident of Washington State and just last month started a quest to visit every winery in my state. When I started out on the quest I had no idea that there were over 900 wineries in the state! Not to be daunted by that number, I accepted that it may take me a little bit longer to get them all checked off.
Each month I’ll select something from my travels to share with you – an interesting winery to visit, a fun festival or event, a special that wine that I’ve discovered, or some of the creatives things being done with food and wine. In between, I invite you to head over to Seattle Bits & Bites where I’ll write more about wine travel and tourism around Washington State, or to Traveling with MJ where I write about luxury travel around the world.
I’m not an expert when it comes to wine, and very often my favorite is the one that’s currently in my glass. But I do like learning more about it, discovering food and wine pairings that bring out the best in both and incorporating it into my travel plans. And, of course, I enjoy drinking it. So let’s jump in with a primer on Washington wines.
Washington State AVAs
There are 14 Washington state AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), basically a fancy way of saying there 14 geographical grape growing areas. As we continue to explore wineries and wine, I’ll frequently be referencing what AVA it is in, helping you create a cheat sheet of Washington state AVAs that best fit your palate profile.
In alphabetical order, they are:
- Ancient Lakes – With nearly1,800 acres of planted grapes, and over 20 different vinifera varieties, this AVA is located entirely within the Columbia Valley (the Gorge Amphitheater is one the west side of the region) in central Washington. The emphasis is on white grapes, with Riesling the most widely planted. Tasting notes from this area include lime, lemon, and green apples, often with bright acidity and minerality.
- Columbia Gorge – This region of 445 acres of grapes is defined by the Columbia River Gorge and is located within a National Scenic area east of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington. This AVA includes parts of both Washington and Oregon and includes both east and west sides of the states. The mix of grapes in about two-thirds white, with the most widely planted being Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris.
- Columbia Valley – This mega AVA covers more than a third of the state and contains several smaller AVAs within its boundaries. It spans parts of both the western and eastern sides of the state and has several smaller AVAs contained within it. There are some 17,000 acres of grapes in this largest AVA in the state.
- Horse Heaven Hills – Over 6,100 acres of grapes in southeast Washington along the Washington-Oregon border, the mix of grapes here is about two-thirds red. The primary grapes planted here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling. This AVA is home to some of the state’s largest and oldest vineyards, with the region producing about 25% of the state’s wine.
- Lake Chelan – With under 300 acres of grapes planted, this AVA is located around Lake Chelan in the Columbia Valley. It has about an even split between white and red grapes and the most commonly planted are Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
- Lewis-Clark Valley – This AVA was established earlier this year (2016) and has about three-quarters of its area located in Washinton state, the rest in Idaho. It’s nestled in the Bitterroot Mountains with about two dozen different types of red and white grapes grown.
- Naches Heights – This small AVA, about 50 acres of grapes, is located in south-central Washington, northwest of Yakima. About 60% of the grapes planted are white. The primary grapes planted are Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Syrah.
- Puget Sound – The only AVA located on the western side of Washington state, you’ll find about 200 acres with about at 60/40 split leaning toward red. The area ranges from the Canadian border to Olympia, and also includes numerous coastal islands. The primary grape planted is Pinot Noir, followed by Riesling, but you’ll also find some uncommon varietals including Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau, Regent, and Siegerrebe.
- Rattlesnake Hills – Located southeast of Yakima, you’ll find about 1,800 acres of vines fairly evenly split between red and white (although reds do get a slight edge). The most planted grapes are Riesling, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This AVA created a little controversy when it was first established (2006) over whether its terroir was sufficiently different from neighboring Yakima Valley AVA to create a new one.
- Red Mountain – Typically Washington’s warmest growing region, as well as the smallest, this AVA is located in the south-central part of the state on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley. Its warm temperatures mean red grapes dominate, and primary varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The weather and soil in this region result in higher tannin levels than wines in other parts of the state.
- Snipes Mountain – With over 800 acres of vines, this is the second smallest AVA in Washington. Named for a cattle rancher, the area is located in south-central Washinton. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most planted, with some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in the state.
- Yakima Valley – Washington state’s first federally recognized AVA (1983) and over one-third of the state’s vineyards can be found here (over 13,000 acres). This is Washington’s most diverse growing region, with over 40 different grapes planted. The most widely planted grape is Chardonnay, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Riesling and Syrah are also on the rise. Not surprisingly, this is also home to the highest concentration of wineries. The Yakima Valley AVA encompasses three separate AVAs: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, and Rattlesnake Hills.
- Wahluke Slope – This isolated region is also one of the warmest, making it primarily known for its red grapes, most notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Wines tend to be ripe and full-bodied with pure fruit flavors. Notable white grapes include Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc. There are around 9,000 acres of vines.
- Walla Walla Valley – You’ll find over 1,500 acres of vineyards and over 100 wineries in this AVA which also straddles the Washington-Oregon border in the southeastern part of the state. Red grapes dominate, and you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon (the most planted), as well as Merlot, and Syrah
Check back next month for more suggestions, recommendations, and ideas about exploring Washington State wines and wineries. And if you have questions or ideas for a future column, please email me.
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Photo: Fall in the vineyard at Whidbey Island Winery, part of the Puget Sound AVA.