The Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA)—the first in Washington State—celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Yet, it remains one of the least recognized and most undervalued wine regions in America.
The AVA follows the Yakima River, carving its way through a fertile valley that runs southeast from the outskirts of Yakima (the self-described “Palm Springs of the Northwest”).
It encompasses the altitude-specific Rattlesnake Hills AVA along its northern edge, and wraps around the Snipes Mountain AVA in midvalley.
A few miles east of Prosser, the river abruptly turns north along the western slope of Red Mountain AVA, another subregion within Yakima Valley. The most eastern Yakima Valley vineyards are clustered south and east of Red Mountain, just a short distance from the Tri-Cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick.
Taken together, the Yakima Valley AVA and its subregions comprise the largest subset of the vast Columbia Valley AVA. The well-defined subappellations have somewhat hidden the strengths of the broader Yakima Valley.
To add to the confusion, specific subregions are not always featured on labels. Some wineries prefer to use Columbia Valley on everything. Some opt for Yakima Valley instead of Rattlesnake Hills or Snipes Mountain.
Long before its official designation, the Yakima Valley was well established as a winegrowing region. On Snipes Mountain, Muscat vines planted in 1917 still bear fruit. The Otis Vineyard (planted in 1957) and Harrison Hill (1962) have Washington’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
Mike Sauer’s Red Willow Vineyard was a real-world laboratory for Columbia winemaker David Lake, who did the first Washington plantings of Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Syrah and numerous other grapes there.
Some of these pioneering Yakima Valley vineyards are still in their prime, supplying grapes to many of Washington’s top boutique wineries. Among them are Boushey, Ciel du Cheval, DuBrul, Kestrel View, Kiona, Klipsun, Lewis, Minick and Olsen.
Any vineyard-designated wine from those producers will bring site-specific, well-developed flavors into focus. It will express terroir.
Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most planted varieties, and in recent years, Syrah and Pinot Gris have shown to be equally at home here.
Especially when sourced from old vines, Yakima Valley wines can offer the best, most pinpoint expression of Washington wines: On the cusp between the jammy, opulent flavors of California and the more restrained, grass, earth and herb-inflected wines of Europe.
“The good, experienced winemakers are coming here now, buying fruit,” grower Dick Boushey observed in a meeting of small producers a few years ago.
“To me, that means they like the results,” he said. “There is more planting and discovery here than anywhere in the state… there’s a rediscovery going on.”
That rediscovery is now reality, as new vineyards reach into higher sites off the valley floor, on Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain, and in the Rattlesnake Hills.
Marcus Miller is the winemaker for Airfield Estates. His family has farmed in the Yakima Valley for four generations, and began planting grapevines in the late 1960s. They now farm more than 860 acres planted to 26 varieties.
“In my perspective,” says Miller, “the Yakima Valley’s strengths boil down to two main things: fruit and acid. I can count on good acidity in my wines across the board, even in warm vintages.
“Yakima Valley aromatics are fruit forward and vibrant, especially with aromatic whites like Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.
Todd Newhouse, whose family farms close to 1,000 acres of vines on Snipes Mountain, also applauds the diversity throughout the valley.
“The Yakima Valley has four distinctive seasons of the year,” he says, “and enough great sites that have slopes which provide heat and air drainage to effectively grow all kinds of vinifera.
“I think it’s definitely a strength when you can say an AVA has two subappellations that are the two warmest AVAs in Washington, and yet it’s regarded as a cool AVA,” he says.
Yakima Valley white wines, whether pure Rieslings and Chardonnays, or Rhône blends using some combination of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Picpoul and Grenache Blanc, generally have a steely core, a dynamic tension.
They are ripe, but rarely fat or flabby, and rarely turn the corner into full-on tropical fruit. They’re nuanced wines, with green and yellow fruit, stone fruit, vivid natural acidity and often a streak of minerality.
Yakima Valley red wines vary considerably, depending upon the vineyard location. The west-end vineyards are cooler, and reds from there have a pronounced herbal character, though they rarely stray into vegetal flavors.
From the valley’s hotter east end—especially on Red Mountain—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are supreme. These wines have chewy tannins, dark fruit and a compelling earthiness. They can be among the longest-lived red wines made in America.
Along with the established successes, much experimentation is taking place.
Wade Wolfe has been working and consulting in the Yakima Valley for 35 years. At his Thurston Wolfe winery, he’s exploring Portuguese varieties to craft a Port-style dessert wine.
“I chose the Yakima Valley because I was able to find growers with unique microclimates who were willing to experiment with unusual varieties, such as Albariño and Touriga Nacional,” he says. “I was also able to find old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon (at Upland Vineyard) and Lemberger (at Red Willow) that could not be found anywhere else in the state.”
It’s fair to say that the oldest AVA in Washington remains, in many important ways, the one that’s most actively exploring, experimenting and expanding viticulturally. All of this will help to ensure that the next 30 years are just as invigorating as the first 30 have been.
Yakima Valley at a Glance
Yakima Valley AVA
Established in 1983. Grows 42 varieties of grapes on a total of 17,000 planted acres (out of 43,000 in Washington State). The top six varieties are Chardonnay (3,423 acres), Riesling (3,379 acres), Merlot (2,960 acres), Cabernet Sauvignon (2,784 acres), Syrah (1,055 acres) and Pinot Gris (901 acres).
Red Mountain AVA
Established in 2001. Principally Bordeaux reds and Syrah on 1,200 planted acres. Has 15 wineries and 11 tasting rooms.
Rattlesnake Hills AVA
Established in 2006. Principally Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling on 1,566 planted acres. Has 17 wineries.
Snipes Mountain AVA
Established in 2009. Almost 1,000 planted acres grow 30 varieties. Has 6 wineries.
Source: USDA Washington Vineyard Acreage Report 2011.
Top Recent Releases from Yakima
94 Kevin White 2011 La Fraternité (Yakima Valley). This is a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Lovely aromatics introduce a forward, fruit-powered wine loaded with scents and flavors of ripe cherries and plums. The red fruits are enhanced with hints of tobacco and mineral, but the lollipop fruit core is what captivates through a long finish. Total of 172 cases produced. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.2% Price: $20
92 Obelisco Estate 2010 Electrum Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain). This is an authoritative Red Mountain Cabernet from a rising star with an excellent young vineyard. Great structure and a spine of steel support a tightly wound core of pure cassis. The tannins are hard, but fully ripe, with black olive, coffee grounds and Bourbon-barrel highlights. Total of 450 cases produced. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.1% Price: $65
92 Thurston Wolfe 2010 Touriga Nacional Port (Yakima Valley). Every bit as good as the dazzling 2009, this is 100% Touriga Nacional. Sappy and acidic, it has extraordinarily deep and succulent flavors of raspberries, along with lush, chocolaty tannins. It’s startlingly good, and though entirely ageworthy, almost impossible to ignore at the moment. Just 50 cases produced. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 19% Price: $16/375 ml
91 Airfield Estates 2010 Estate Merlot (Yakima Valley). This is a fine effort, culled from a single block of 15-year-old vines. Firm and tannic, it shows focused flavors of blackberry and cassis, highlights of clove and cacao, and admirable precision through a lingering finish. Total of 385 cases produced. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.9% Price: $20
91 Sparkman 2012 Pearl Sauvignon Blanc (Yakima Valley). A blend of grapes from Klipsun, Spring Creek and Boushey, this new release of Pearl is as distinctive as the 2011, but offers somewhat different flavors. The precision and detail remain, with a powerful caraway note—like a sniff of fresh rye bread. It’s firm, tart and penetrating, with excellent balance and length.
abv: 14.1% Price: $22
90 Brian Carter Cellars 2009 Tuttorosso Red Wine (Yakima Valley). This is Brian Carter’s take on a super Tuscan: 68% Sangiovese, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah. The lovely aromatics capture a sense of the elusive Sangiovese rose-petal accents, while the fruit leans toward wild currant and raspberry. The wine has the acidity and overall balance to age for a number of years. Total of 991 cases produced.
abv: 14.2% Price: $33