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Columbia Valley AVA story


This story begins a semi-regular series on North Central Washington’s five American Viticultural Areas. Future stories will focus on Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan, Ancient Lakes and Royal Slope AVAs and some of the wineries that produce wines from grapes grown in those areas.

The structure of good wine is rooted in the land

Story by Rick Steigmeyer

What is it that makes that wine you love so unique? A wine so distinctly different from others — even others made from the same grape varieties — that you want to return to it again and again. Just like you would if it was a place — a beautiful place and time that seared within you an intoxicating memory.

Place does play an important role in why wines taste the way they do. That’s why Washington’s vast Eastern Washington grape-growing area is carved up into an increasing number of distinct areas, known as American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs.

Washington has 16 AVAs. All but one are on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. One stretches into Oregon, another into Idaho.

There are five AVAs in North Central Washington. They are Columbia Valley, Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan, Ancient Lakes and Royal Slope.

The huge Columbia Valley AVA covers much of Central Washington. It encompasses four other smaller AVAs in NCW, as well as five more in the southern part of the state. With more than 11 million total acres and close to 60,000 acres of vineyard, the Columbia Valley AVA accounts for 99 percent of all wine produced in Washington, according to the Washington State Wine Commission, the organization that oversees and promotes the state’s wine industry.

There are about 100 wineries in the NCW region, more than 1,000 wineries in the state, and the overwhelming majority of them can claim the Columbia Valley AVA as their vineyard source. Some can also claim one of the region’s four smaller AVAs on their label as well.

At least 85 percent of the grapes used to produce a wine must come from vineyards within the AVA for the wine to use the AVA designation on its label. If, for example, a wine was made with 50 percent grapes from the Ancient Lakes area and 50 percent grapes from the Lake Chelan area, it couldn’t be labeled as either, but it could call itself a Columbia Valley AVA wine.

Knowledgeable wine lovers look for AVA information on wine labels that can guide them to more information about where grapes for the wine came from, the area’s wine growing characteristics and sometimes how the wine was made.

The French have a term for the relationship between place and wine called terroir. The term can also be used for other agricultural products grown in a specific area. Terroir — loosely translated as terrain or “a sense of place” — describes the notion that grapes — and often other produce — of a certain place are influenced by the combination of geology, land contour, exposure to sun, soil, climate and even micro-organisms specific to the site.

The concept is held in strict esteem in France and other European wine grape-growing areas. Growing districts there, called appellations, are tightly regulated for grape varieties, and growing and winemaking practices. Familiar appellations include Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chardonnay and Champagne, names that refer to regulated wine-producing areas. French wines labeled as Bordeaux, for example, must be made only from certain grape varieties grown in a specific region of Southwest France.

Surprisingly, appellations weren’t devised in France until the 1930s, even though wine culture has been married to French life for centuries, according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. The regulations were required because of shady winemaking and blending practices after French vineyards had to be replanted due to disease.

Regulations were first established for Chianti Classico in Tuscany in the 1400s, but Italy’s system of geographical wine regulations didn’t become official until 1963.

Washington AVAs are very recent and not nearly as regulated as those in Europe, at least not yet, said Cameron Fries, owner of White Heron Cellars near Quincy. AVAs designate a specific geographical area as defined by land contour, geology and climate, but don’t attempt to regulate what grapes or practices are used in making the wines.

“We are very young. Things will evolve,” said Fries, who has been an avid promoter for NCW wines since attending viticulture schools and apprenticing as a winemaker in Switzerland in the early 1980s. Fries was one of Washington’s early winemakers. He started making wine for Champs de Brionne Winery in 1986. That Quincy-area winery, owned by Vince and Carol Bryan who started The Gorge Amphitheatre, closed in 1993 with the sale of the concert venue. The Bryans kept the vineyards and opened Cave B in 2000.

“The idea behind the AVA is to point attention to our growing area,” Fries said. “AVAs are important because each growing area is going to have an influence on the wine it produces. In France, there is no word for winemaker. The vineyard is primordial. It is the land, not the winemaker, that is important.”

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the AVA designation in 1980. The first Washington AVA was the Yakima AVA in 1982, followed two years later by the huge Columbia AVA that includes Yakima.

But there were few Washington wineries back then. Fries remembers there were 56 when he purchased land for his own winery in the late 1980s. Now there are more than 1,000 Washington wineries. Washington is the nation’s second-leading wine producer, behind California, which has 10 times as many wineries.

For sure, AVAs are a form of branding, a way of labeling wines that boast of the unique qualities of vineyards that grow under very specific geologic and climate conditions. But regions must back up their AVA applications with hard science that reveals why grapes grown in the area have distinct qualities that influence the resulting wines.

The Columbia Valley, although huge, is tied together as a growing area by similar climate and a series of cataclysmic geological events caused by the Missoula Floods 15,000 years ago. The ice age floods raced across Eastern Washington and along the Columbia River for 2,000 years, scouring the land and leaving trails of sand and silt, gravel and fertile slackwater sediment over volcanic basalt bedrock.

The semi-arid region is of similar latitude to European wine growing areas and receives consistently warm summer temperatures for a long growing season. Irrigation is provided by the Columbia River and its tributaries, the huge Columbia Basin Project and wells. More than 50 grape varieties are grown in the Columbia Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah are the leading varieties.

It’s becoming better known with each passing year as one of the world’s best vineyard regions. It’s that sense of place that brings people back for another glass.

BOX 1:


Ancient Lakes

Candy Mountain

Columbia Gorge

Columbia Valley

Horse Heaven Hills

Lake Chelan

Lewis-Clark Valley

Naches Heights

Puget Sound

Rattlesnake Hills

Red Mountain

Royal Slope

Snipes Mountain

Yakima Valley

Wahluke Slope

Walla Walla Valley

BOX 2:


◦ Established in 1984

◦ Washington's largest viticultural region, covering 8,748,949 acres in Washington, represents a full third of Washington state's land mass. Columbia Valley is a cross border AVA, totaling 11,308,636 total acreage.

◦ The Columbia Valley contains 99% of wine grapes grown in Washington state, 59,234 acres.

◦ Columbia Valley's vast size allows for a number of meso- and micro-climates.

◦ Vineyards are planted on predominately south-facing slopes, increasing solar radiation in summer and promoting air drainage in winter.

◦ Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most widely planted varietals.

◦ Growing season of 180-200 days with annual rainfall averaging 6 to 8 inches.

◦ The Columbia Valley contains the American Viticultural regions of Red Mountain, Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, Lake Chelan, Naches Heights and Ancient Lakes within its borders.

◦ With the exception of Lewis-Clark Valley, Puget Sound and Columbia Gorge, all other growing regions in Washington are subappellations of the Columbia Valley.

Source: Washington State Wine