When you ask Chris Figgins about the potential of Leonetti Cellar’s new Mill Creek Uplands Vineyard, the young winemaker—son of Leonetti founder Gary Figgins—can hardly contain his enthusiasm. “The soils are really unique, deep, windblown loess,” he explains.

“There are no gravels ’til you hit 70 feet. At night the temperature drops really rapidly, even more so than usual in eastern Washington. It’ll go from 90 degrees to 50 as soon as the sun sets.” The result, he says, is that the grapes develop deep colors, and naturally high acid. “For our style of really plush, hedonistic wines,” notes Figgins, “we have to be almost careful with it.”

The Cailloux Vineyard is an ancient, rock-strewn Walla Walla Valley riverbed that could not be more unlike Mill Creek Uplands. Christophe Baron, from a family of Champenoise whose winemaking history can be traced back to the 16th century, could not believe his good fortune when he first spotted the abandoned apple orchard a few years ago and dug down below the weeds. “It definitely looked like Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” he says. “It’s a mix of silty loam with a little sand and cobblestone for the first 18 to 20 inches; from there it’s pure stone.”

Figgins, Baron and their passionate peers have powered the Washington wine industry’s extraordinary growth, from 19 to 240 wineries in the past two decades. They are at the forefront of those working for a deeper understanding of Washington’s best wines. As a result, they are helping drive the steady refinement of Washington state’s vineyard regions into newer and ever more defined AVAs. Red Mountain, just 700 acres, was declared in 2001, and more areas are up for approval. Horse Heaven Hills should be green-lighted imminently; two more in Yakima are not far behind.

In a word, Washington’s got terroir, baby.
“Terroir” is a French term for which there is no perfect English equivalent. A good way to understand terroir is that it is wine’s expression of the climate, soil, geology, elevation, latitude and weather (microclimate) of the site where the grapes are grown. Yet that doesn’t go quite far enough, because any grapevine in the world can lay claim to some combination of all of the above, yet few of them truly express a unique and distinctive terroir.

Bob Betz, the vice president of education and research for Stimson Lane, defines terroir as “the sum total of site conditions that the winemaker cannot change, and the character of the wines they create.” When talking about Washington viticulture, he begins by explaining that there are two basic levels of terroir. The “macro” level encompasses the entire Columbia Valley, a vast (10.7 million- acre) appellation that includes three of the other four AVAs currently approved in the state.

“The Columbia Valley’s ‘macro’ terroir,” Betz explains, “is defined by three major physical causes: its latitude at about 46 degrees north, its protection from ocean weather systems by two mountain ranges, and its relatively homogenous sand-based soils.”

Most interesting, Betz believes, are Washington’s smaller, emerging “meso” terroirs, often noted in single-vineyard wines or blends of top vineyards from places such as Red Mountain, Canoe Ridge, Cold Creek and select sites in the Walla Walla Valley (see box).
The big picture Betz paints is this: Certain fundamental growing conditions prevail across virtually all of eastern Washington. These influences combine to clearly delineate the structure and flavors of Washington wines. The most important of these conditions are:

· Low winter temperatures that allow vines to go into full and complete winter dormancy.

· A unique growing timeline, with bud burst later than it is in California; a warm-to-hot midseason with two hours more sunlight daily; and a long, slow ripening period through September and October.

· Dramatic differences in fall daytime and nighttime temperatures.

· Low rainfall year round, necessitating controlled irrigation in most areas.

· Extremely quick drainage for any water applied, either from precipitation or irrigation.

The bottom line is intensity of flavor, says Doug Gore, who oversees the winemaking for Columbia Crest winery. “The Columbia Valley’s signature is fruit intensity and varietally correct wines, first in the nose, then in the palate,” he says. “Whether it’s blueberry in Cabernet Franc, black cherry in Cabernet Sauvignon, or peaches and apricots in Riesling, we seem to have it in spades.”

Underscoring the uniqueness of Washington’s vineyards is the state’s geologic history. Research by two Washington State University professors shows that the center of eastern Washington, including virtually all of the Columbia Valley AVA, was carved out thousands of years ago by the largest floods ever documented on earth.

At a presentation last February before the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, professors Larry Meinert and Alan Busacca detailed how a series of cataclysmic floods at the end of the last Ice Age unleashed some 2,500 cubic kilometers of water (think Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined) across the Columbia Plateau.

A practiced eye can still see the scars left by the floods in the brutal, jagged landscapes of eastern Washington, with its profusion of coulees, dry waterfalls, gravel bars and huge boulders scattered across the desert.

Chris Upchurch winemaker, DeLille Cellars in Woodinville
More importantly, the residue of the floods—gravel, silts and sands deposited by the receding waters, or later windblown over the land—comprise the basic soils that contribute to the unique flavors of Washington state wines.

These flavors, built upon vivid fruit, bright acids and compact tannins, demonstrate a comparable diversity of style and precision of place as are found in the best wines from California. Washington should now be considered in the same context as any other globally significant wine region in terms of the subtle distinctions among its best growing places. Here’s a terroir roundup of the current Washington AVAs, and four that could be approved in the near future.

Walla Walla Valley
In the southeast corner of Washington, spilling over the border into Oregon, is the Walla Walla Valley AVA, established in 1984. The plantable area surrounds the town of Walla Walla and is bordered by the rolling hills of the Palouse wheat country to the north, and the Blue Mountains to the east and south. The valley, shaped like a diamond, is the premier wine-touring destination in eastern Washington. Beyond the Leonetti-style boutiques, mid-size wineries such as L’Ecole No. 41, Three Rivers, Waterbrook and Seven Hills offer excellent wines in quantities sufficient to keep their tasting rooms humming. Though barely 1,200 acres of vineyard are currently in production, the impact of those grapes far exceeds their numbers.

Northstar is Stimson Lane’s Merlot-only showplace winery, located on the southern outskirts of Walla Walla town. Winemaker Rusty Figgins (brother of Gary, uncle of Chris) believes that Walla Walla’s silt and loam soils make it particularly suited to Merlot. He is proud to say that “the fruit coming from Walla Walla is head and shoulders more distinctive, more Bordeaux-like, than grapes grown outside the area.”

Still, Figgins is cagey when asked about the characteristics of Walla Walla-grown wines. Instead, he talks about “modified” terroir.

“If you irrigate, or do anything that modifies your environment, you have modified terroir,” he explains. “So in the truest sense of the word, terroir only exists in those vineyards that are dry farmed,” like Walla Walla’s. He believes it may be the one AVA in Washington that can be dry farmed, because of the higher rainfall and heavier, loamier soils.

Walla Walla vineyards have already carved out a reputation for growing excellent Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah. But there is also some very good Sangiovese being made at Leonetti, Walla Walla Vintners and elsewhere. A delicate, floral Viognier is made by Cayuse, and Three Rivers produces a particularly fine Gewürztraminer from the Biscuit Ridge Vineyard. It seems certain that future AVAs will carve up Walla Walla into more meaningful components.
To taste the flavor of the Walla Walla Valley, try the L’Ecole No. 41 Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot, or the Pepper Bridge Merlot.

Red Mountain
Red Mountain, established in 2001, is the most precisely defined AVA in Washington. With just 700 acres of vines under cultivation, Red Mountain vineyards provide the fruit for some of Washington’s most coveted wines. The Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval vineyards do not have wineries of their own, but sell their fruit to an all-star lineup that includes Andrew Will, Betz Family, Cadence, DeLille Cellars, L’Ecole No. 41, Quilceda Creek, Seven Hills, Three Rivers, Woodward Canyon and others.

Tricia and David Gelles planted Klipsun Vineyards in 1984, following the lead of Jim Holmes (Ciel du Cheval) and John Williams (Kiona), who pioneered the area. Today, Klipsun Cabernet and Merlot are eagerly sought after; about 20 different wineries bottle Klipsun Vineyard-designated red wines. But it’s not the soil composition that differentiates Red Mountain, the Gelleses believe. “I’m beginning to realize that we have the same soils up and down the Yakima Valley, the Walla Walla Valley and the Willamette Valley,” he says.
Instead, Red Mountain’s distinctive terroir characteristics can be traced to topography. Says Tom Hedges, founder of Hedges Cellars, also on Red Mountain, “What makes it unique is the elevation, the slope, the way the winds are channeled from the north, and other factors that lend a dense minerality to its grapes.” The distinctive result, says Hedges, is a wine that’s “alcoholic, tannic, tight, very ageworthy, dark, dense and lightly aromatic.”
To taste the flavor of Red Mountain, try the Andrew Will Klipsun Vineyard Merlot, or the Hedges Cellars Red Mountain Reserve, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot.

Yakima Valley
Second in size among Washington’s existing appellations is the Yakima Valley AVA, which basically encircles the Yakima River as it winds from the Cascade foothills east toward the Tri-Cities. Established in 1983, it includes about 11,000 acres of bearing vineyards, among them some of the state’s oldest.

Kevin Corliss grew up in the Yakima Valley. In 1983, armed with a degree in horticulture from Washington State University, he went to work for Washington industry leader Stimson Lane. Today, as the company’s director of viticulture, he oversees vineyards throughout eastern Washington. “Our terroir is more climate- and temperature-driven than it is soil-driven, as in France,” he says. “Modern viticultural practices—drip irrigation, tighter vine spacing, lower yields—have allowed us to rediscover the strengths of the Yakima Valley. Riesling is a star here, but Merlot does well, and Cabernet in the warmer sites.”

The valley divides itself in half, with the warm to hot sites at the eastern end. The cooler western half produces its best fruit in a warm year such as 1998. At the extreme western edge, on a plateau in the Cascade foothills, sits the Red Willow Vineyard, a kind of viticultural laboratory for grower Mike Sauer and Columbia winemaker David Lake.

Among many innovations, they were the first to plant Syrah in Washington, back in 1985, with cuttings from Joseph Phelps. At the time it was just one more experimental block, but today there are 2,100 acres of Syrah in Washington, and perhaps 50 wineries making one or more bottlings of the grape variety.

To taste the flavor of the Yakima Valley, try the Columbia Red Willow Syrah or the McCrea Cellars Cuvée Orleans Syrah.

Horse Heaven Hills and more
The state’s next federally approved AVA is likely to be the Horse Heaven Hills region, bound in the north by the hills that form the southern border of the Yakima Valley, and in the south by the Columbia River. Its growing season is fairly warm, and temperature extremes are moderated by the presence of the river. Some of the largest vineyards in the state are here, including Chalone’s Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate, the vineyards encircling Columbia Crest and another huge estate named Alder Ridge. It’s quite windy in most of these vineyards (though Chalone’s vines are somewhat protected), which can toughen skins and shrink berries. Some feel this contributes to the tannic power of the wines; when managed properly, Horse Heaven Hills Vineyards can deliver some of Washington’s top Merlots and Cabernets.

To taste the flavor of the Horse Heaven Hills, try Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, or Canoe Ridge Vineyard Merlot.

Several interesting new subregions are likely to be carved out of the Columbia Valley in the next few years. Along with the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, there is an application in the works for a Columbia River Gorge AVA that will encompass vineyards and wineries farther west, on the bluffs above the Columbia River.

Another one coming soon is a Wahluke Slope AVA, which includes some of the state’s warmest sites. Nearby is the Cold Creek Vineyard, which has one of the longest growing seasons in the Columbia Valley. It is the jewel in the crown among Stimson Lane properties, from whose grapes many of Ste. Michelle’s single-vineyard and reserve wines are made.

Still farther north, vineyards are taking over abandoned apple orchards along Lake Chelan and up the Okanogan Valley. There is already a Lake Chelan Wine Grape Growers Association with 15 members; another AVA is likely to be proposed from this area in the next few years.

“Here in the Columbia Valley, we do not have the temptation to blend lower-quality fruit into our wines,” explains Columbia Crest’s Gore. “We have no choice. Mother Nature will not allow us to grow those high tons as the Central Valley of California does, or the interior of Australia.”

The results, if these growers have anything to do with it, will be ever more terrior-specific new vines from Washington. Tom Hedges sums it up neatly. “I tell people that the Merlot from Red Mountain tastes more like the Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain than it tastes like the Merlot from five miles away,” he says.

Published on May 1, 2003

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