A few weeks ago, we discussed in this space the expansion of your wine enjoyment by suggesting some wines you may have passed up from places that you may not expect good wines to come from.
Let us take that incredibly good idea (oh, hell, I just broke my arm patting myself on the back) and narrow the focus. Since we are coming up on a great American Holiday, Thanksgiving, we will stay American. Very American. Washington State.
The Columbia River Valley pays little attention to political boundaries and crosses the Washington-Oregon state line with impunity. Geographically, here is a large area which has experienced up close the collision and subsidence of earth’s tectonic plates. Actually this area was not even an original part of our continent and was mashed into joining up with the rest of North America by continental drift from the east.
Yet the real defining events for the Columbia River Valley occurred as a violent confluence of volcanoes and melting ice back 40 million years ago with at least 40 floods of epic proportions slashing through this area. Some of these floods were equal to ten times the total flow of all the river’s of the world, as we know them today. And they brought with them from the north, now Canada, volcanic rock, soils, and whatever else was in their path though this valley which those events carved. (“Hey, Carl, I don’t remember this valley being here yesterday.” “No, Sam, me neither. I guess something happened last night. I was sleeping so sound after that dinner of mastodon ribs even an earthquake and a flood would not have woken me up.”)
Fast forward to modern times, and now we have the waters of major rivers – the Columbia, the Yakima, and the Snake – and a number of broad valleys. The Columbia River flows for over 1200 miles and is the fourth largest river in the U.S. It is the largest that empties into the Pacific Ocean. Its drainage basin is in 7 states and is the size of France. Importantly for our discussion, the area in the southeastern part of Washington State and northeastern Oregon is perfect, in spots, for some darn fine wine grape agriculture.
Three areas, in particular, are of interest, all in Washington State. Yakima Valley; the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland; and Walla Walla. There are other excellent grape-growing areas to the east of the Cascade Mountain range, as these all are, but these three are the ones we are focusing on today.
Whatever you think about Washington State as a damp, overcast, cool, sometimes cold place, forget those Seattle attributes when looking at the southeastern portion of this large state. Here, you are definitively in a desert. More than 340 days of sunshine in the region and less than 5 inches of rain annually. Irrigation is not an option here. Bring in the water or consider another profession.
As for the grapes, you can forget pinot noir fruit in this corner of Washington. Too hot for fickle, thin-skinned fruit. Look to hardier styles, even with whites that can stand up to the very hot and dry conditions.
Yakima is a rich, verdant valley, and properly grows apples, pears, cherries, peaches, corn, melons, mint and asparagus.
The prime areas for grapes here are Yakima itself, along with neighboring Rattlesnake Hills and Prosser. Cabernet Sauvignon is a keystone grape. Prime wine companies are 14 Hands, Alder Ridge, Chinook, Hogue, Mercer, and Agate Field.
The Tri-Cities area, one of the least romantic names for any wine area in the world, sits at the confluence of those rivers mentioned above (okay, one more time: the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima. I don’t think you are going to do very well on the pop quiz). There are over 160 wineries in this area but with the water here, bird watching and water sports also are attractions.
The area’s population is extremely well-educated, likely due in part to the establishment in 1943 of the world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor, Hanford Site, which was a key component of the Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bombs used in World War II. Lots of Ph.D.’s here. They really are rocket scientists.
Anyway, a few key locations for wine growing in the Tri-Cities area are Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills. Notable wineries in the area are Bernard Griffin, Canoe Ridge, Hedges, Columbia Crest, Col Solare, Pacific Rim, and Preston.
More than 100 wineries are present at the real wine hot-spot for this group, Walla Walla. I will, in the interest of decorum, abstain from using the phrase, “the town so nice, they named it twice.” You are welcome.
Notable wineries include Cayuse, Charles Smith, Canoe Ridge, Gramercy Cellars, L’Ecole No. 41, Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, Waterbrook, Walla Walla Vintners, and Woodward Canyon.
And here’s that little piece of insight you have been looking for in this article: Riesling. These areas are not kidding around with Riesling. Yes, the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Malbec, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot are excellent, but the real champion here is the Riesling. Well-structured, lots of depth, gobs of fruit but not sweet, and long on the finish, Riesling is the unexpected star. Bonus: this grape pairs quite well with our spicy cuisine. Don’t pass up that combination.
As for the red wines produced here, they will indeed last a long time. They are, in most cases, big, alcoholic, and jammy, which is what many Americans like.
The American wine industry continues to mature and find its way in the world. We no longer plant a vine in the ground and hope for the best. We are doing the work every bit as well as the Old World countries of France, Spain, Italy and Germany. We just have not been doing it as long. Plenty of good things coming out of numerous areas, notably there is at least one winery in every state, including three in Alaska.
The wines of southeastern Washington State take a back seat to no area.