Introduction to the Regions and Wines of Washington State
While the reputation of fine wines from the United States has mainly depended on California since the latter half of the twentieth century, the unique geographical features of the Pacific Northwest, as well as advancements in viticulture and winemaking techniques, have provided wine producers in Washington State with the ability to craft world-class, cellar-worthy wines. Washington is responsible for the second largest output of wine in the U.S. after California, and enjoys a warm, dry, continental climate east of the Cascade Mountains, where the majority of vineyards are located.
During the growing season, Washington receives an average of two hours more sunlight than California each day, resulting in optimal grape ripeness. Cooler nights bestow grapes with the necessary acidity to make structured and balanced wines. The following article will examine Washington’s most important wine growing regions.
Columbia Valley AVA
Found in southeastern Washington, Columbia Valley is one of the largest American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The Columbia River plays an essential role in shaping the landscape here, and is often utilized for irrigation in the vineyard, since the Cascade range significantly restricts rainfall. Cold winters discourage phylloxera from attacking the vines’ rootstock. Many soil types are available, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Riesling having great success in the region. The Columbia Valley AVA encompasses many smaller AVAs, each with a distinct microclimate and geography.
Walla Walla Valley AVA
Found within the Columbia Valley and originally home to a trading post for early settlers, the warm Walla Walla Valley enjoys the cooling influence of the Blue Mountains. A portion of the AVA extends south into Oregon. Well-drained soils of the Walla Walla Valley can produce excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Many complex Bordeaux-style red blends are made as well, along with varietal wines.
Yakima Valley AVA
Located at the center of the Columbia Valley, the Yakima Valley has a relatively cool climate - ideal for growing white grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling. The Red Mountain AVA within the Yakima Valley is known for elegant Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-style blends, and spicy Syrah. The Yakima Valley AVA was established in 1983, making it the state’s first AVA.
Horse Heaven Hills AVA
Southeast of the Yakima Valley, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA is less prone to extreme weather than other wine growing areas in the Columbia Valley. Although Cabernet Sauvignon was first planted here in 1972, it was not until 2005 that the region gained official AVA status. Some of Washington’s most prominent wineries obtain fruit from vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. In addition to complex old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon, high-quality Merlot, Syrah, and Chardonnay are also grown here.
Today, Washington State is at the forefront of U.S. wine production, often over-delivering in value to compete against more recognizable regions like Napa Valley. If you haven’t already tasted the diverse and delicious wines being produced here, there’s no better time than the present!