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Royal Slope AVA | A source of treasure for wineries around the state

One of the newest of Washington’s 19 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) may well be one of the best wine-grape growing regions in the state, if not the nation, according to some vintners who have sourced their wines from the Royal Slope area for years.

The Royal Slope AVA earned official designation from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in September 2020. But many of Washington’s best wineries have been sourcing their grapes from the area for nearly 20 years. Eponymous winemaker Charles Smith put the region on the map with his 100-point-scoring 2006 Royal City Syrah, made from grapes from Stoneridge Vineyard. It was the first time Wine Enthusiast magazine had ever given a Washington wine a perfect score. Wine Advocate gave it a 97-point score, Wine Spectator gave it 96, both among the highest scores ever given to Washington wines by those esteemed international wine magazines. Since then, dozens of Washington wines sourced from the Royal Slope AVA have won awards and scores in the high 90s.

Royal Slope’s first vineyard was planted in the 1980s, surrounded by tree fruit, hay and row crops. But most vineyards came after 2000.

Today, about 1,900 acres of the 156,389-acre AVA are planted to grapes. Most of the vineyards — about a dozen — are operated under three corporate or family-owned groups: Frenchman Hills Vineyards, Stillwater Creek Vineyards and Lawrence Vineyards. The vineyards contract with dozens of small and large wineries throughout the Northwest.

North Central Washington wineries that source a portion of their grapes from Royal Slope vineyards include Mellisoni Vineyards, Tildio Winery, Cairdeas Winery, Chris Daniel Winery and many more.

The tiny Burke Vineyard is one of very few wineries actually located in the Royal Slope AVA. Owners Terry and Jan Burke carved two acres from their hay fields south of George for their wine hobby. Their winemaking is now past the hobby stage, with their 2014 Syrah winning Best of Show honors at the 2021 NCW Wine Awards.

“Many of our wineries and grape growers have been championing the terroir of Royal Slope for a long time, so it’s thrilling to be able to put an official AVA name on the bottle,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington Wine Commission when the designation was awarded last year. Royal Slope was the 15th Washington AVA. Since then, four others have been established in South Central Washington.

The Royal Slope AVA lies just to the south of the cooler Ancient Lakes AVA and to the north of the warmer Wahluke Slope AVA. All three reside within the larger Columbia Basin AVA.

Nearly all of the Royal Slope land planted to vineyard is on south-facing slopes of the Frenchman Hills that vary in elevation between 600 feet and 1,750 feet. The 1,300-foot average elevation of the vineyards offers cooler nighttime temperatures and slightly lower daytime temperatures than many other areas, said Alan Busacca, one of the soil scientists who wrote the AVA petition.

“The area of the AVA is large enough that the variation in soils, slopes and aspect allows for a wide range of grape varieties to be matched to specific sites, soils and training methods, producing wine grapes of exceptional quality and distinction,” Busacca said. Unlike surrounding areas to the east and south, the Royal Slope and Frenchman Hills escaped the scouring caused by the Missoula Floods.

The combination of vigorous air movement along the slopes, diverse soils and abundant irrigation water from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project sets up ideal conditions for long ripening and acid retainment, allowing a wide range of grape varieties and styles to excel, according to the Washington Wine Commission.

Viticulturists like Ed Kelly, director of vineyard operations for Stillwater Creek Vineyard, and Mitias Kusulas at Lawrence Vineyards, bring expertise from California, Chile and France in matching more than 20 grape varietals and dozens of clone selections to the Royal Slope’s diverse map of growing sites.

“In a short period of time, vineyards like Stillwater Creek, Lawrence and Frenchman Hills and more have been producing wines that are absolutely rocking people’s worlds,” said Busacca. “Royal Slope has jumped onto the wine map very quickly based on exceptional fruit character and quality.”

Royal Slope AVA

Established: Sept. 2, 2020

The AVA includes 156,389 total acres, of which 1,900 acres are in vineyard.

Royal Slope AVA is entirely within the Columbia Basin AVA, south of the Ancient Lakes AVA and north of the Wahluke Slope AVA.

Elevation varies between 610 feet and 1,756 feet.

The area encompasses Frenchman Hills, a 30-mile long east to west ridge with gentle to medium-steep south-facing slope.

Soils are mostly wind-blown silts and loess. Annual rainfall is 6-8 inches.

More than 20 different varieties are grown in 13 commercial vineyards.

Top varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Source: Washington Wine Commission

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