The Diversity of Washington Wine

Although the state grows many varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, they all share distinct qualities that make them uniquely Washington.
Illustration by Amber Day

Washington grows grape varieties ranging from Aglianico to Zinfandel. Still, a connective thread runs through the state’s wines.

In general, these wines bring together a New World ripeness of flavor (think of the opulence of fruit from wine regions like California and Australia) with an Old World type of acid and tannin structure (similar to the austerity of the wines from places like France and Italy). This creates an expression that straddles the two styles, but remains distinct to Washington. What makes the state’s wines taste the way they do? It’s a combination of three factors: geography, geology and climate.

A Tale of Two Climates

“When I travel, people always say, ‘It’s cold and rainy [in Washington]. How do you ripen Cabernet?’” says Winemaker/Partner Chris Peterson of Avennia.

Indeed, when most people think of the state, they imagine rain-soaked Seattle. The city gets soggy because of storms that come off the Pacific Ocean. As these move east into the Cascade Mountains, almost all of the moisture precipitates out as snow. In the eastern half of the state, something seemingly miraculous occurs.

“Once you cross the mountains into eastern Washington, it becomes a dry, arid climate,” says Steve Warner, president and CEO of the Washington State Wine Commission.

The Cascade Mountains create a phenomenon called a rain shadow. So although Seattle is ever-rainy during the winter, the Columbia Valley, where virtually all of the state’s wine grapes are grown, has 300 days of sunshine. In fact, there is so little precipitation that growing grapes should not even be possible. How are growers able to do it? It starts with the soils.

Map of Washington, Idaho and Montana
Illustration by Amber Day

Taken From the Flood

Like any great wine region, Washington’s soils provide the underpinning for its success. However, the story of how they arrived in the state is unlike any other.

Around 15,000 years ago, a large ice sheet dammed the Clark Fork River in what is now Northern Idaho. This caused water to back up into western Montana, creating a body of water that was the size of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. Over time, this ice dam weakened and eventually broke, resulting in some of the largest known flood events to have occurred anywhere on earth: the Missoula Floods.

Elevating Expectations in Washington State

All of the water came racing out across the Pacific Northwest in a 400-foot-high wave moving at speeds between 30 and 60 miles per hour. It inundated everything up to 1,200 feet above sea level. As the water receded, it left behind soils and rocks that were not native to Washington. Over time, winds whipped up finer-grained particles and deposited them into layers, which would become deeper over the next thousands of years.

The end result: soils of windblown silt atop gravelly Missoula Flood sediment, with the depth and composition of each level varying depending on elevation and aspect. “We have different textures and layers, from fine sandy loam to silt loam to gravel to pure sand,” says Alan Busacca, a field geologist and vineyard consultant. “It gives us a lot of diversity.”

A Perfect Climate for Wine

Due to Washington’s northerly latitude, the state has a short, bright growing season. The Columbia Valley starts accumulating heat units later than wine regions to the south. Additionally, temperatures cool off earlier in the fall.

“We get a later start than they do in California typically,” says Peterson. “By starting later, we’re pushing harvest into the late September to October range where we have a cycle of warm, dry days with really cool nights. That preserves acidity and color without washing out flavors.”

During the height of summer, however, the temperatures are actually warmer than areas like the Napa Valley. There is also as much as 55 more minutes of daylight during the summertime.

“We’re in a sweet spot as far as latitude and summer sunlight,” says Busacca. “If we were 500 miles to the north, we wouldn’t be.”

By autumn, eastern Washington can experience temperature differences of 40 degrees Fahrenheit between daytime highs and nighttime lows. These swings, along with that warm summer weather and the overall harvest cool-down, help create the state’s distinctive wine style.

Washington State wineries
Illustration by Amber Day

Quality and Consistency

Most areas of the Columbia Valley receive less than half the minimum precipitation required to grow wine grapes. Irrigation is therefore a requirement. But remember those Missoula Flood soils?

It turns out they are uniquely suited to irrigated viticulture. They help grape vines to take up just the right amount of water while all the rest drains away.

Irrigation brings great advantages. During the season, growers can apply exactly the amount of water they want, precisely when they want it. So while vintage quality depends on the whims of rainfall throughout many of the world’s wine regions, in Washington, it does not. Growers have control over canopy growth, shoot length, berry size and cluster weight, all of which affect quality.

“The grower is in control of vigor,” says Busacca. “It gives the ability to fine-tune crop stress and the quality of fruit.”

As a result, the state does not have the large fluctuations in vintage quality sometimes seen in other wine regions, with consistently high quality a hallmark.

There’s another reason that Washington can successfully grow a wide variety of wine grapes that display a mixture of an Old World and New World styles: State production is still in its early days.

Whereas some wineries in Italy might be on their 20th generation, Washington wineries are in most cases on their first or second. People are still determining what grows best where. This makes the heights the wines have already achieved even more impressive.

“We’re still in an age of discovery,” says Kent Waliser, director of operations for Sagemoor Vineyards. “We’re only 40 or 50 years old, and in the age of wine, that’s like we were just born.”

The Pioneering Family-Run Wineries of Washington

Tracking the big five

Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah together account for over 80% of annual tonnage in Washington. Winemakers share their thoughts about what makes these grapes distinctive.

Cabernet Sauvignon

“Washington Cabernet has a really nice purity,” says Winemaker Todd Alexander of Force Majeure Vineyards. “There’s rusticity to the wines but also an elegance, finish and polish to them that is really alluring.”

Chardonnay

“Our beautiful summertime weather allows us to successfully produce a full-bodied, rich and creamy Chardonnay, but we still retain acids and minerality,” says Marie-Eve Gilla of Valdemar Estates.

Riesling

“Riesling naturally carries its acidity very well, and the Columbia Valley’s cool nights as the growing season progresses from late August forward really enhances the varietal character,” says Gilles Nicault of Long Shadows.

Merlot

“I see more vibrancy and purity of fruit with Washington Merlot,”says Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery. “What I find particularly attractive is the expressive cherry in the nose and palate, that ranges from red to black.”

Syrah

“Washington Syrah is special to me for one reason—peppery, meaty, stony funkiness,” says Master Sommelier and co-founder of Gramercy Cellars Greg Harrington. “Our cool nights and northerly latitude help preserve the pepper in the wine, a trait shared by the best Syrah in the world.”

Over 70 Varieties 

While these varieties dominate production, nearly 70 grape varieties are planted in Washington—a number that continues to increase. Some, including ones grown in relatively minute quantities, make up some of the state’s best wines, including Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

Washington's key appellations
Illustration by Amber Day

Key Appellations in Washington

Almost all of Washington’s viticultural areas are east of the Cascade Mountains, where it’s an arid and semi-arid desert with warm summer temperatures. Here’s a look at some of the state’s most important regions.

Yakima Valley

Established in 1983, Yakima Valley is Washington’s oldest appellation. It is the work horse of the Washington wine industry, home to one quarter of the state’s wine-grape acreage. The valley includes some of the larger Columbia Valley’s warmest regions as well as some of its coolest. White-grape plantings, particularly Chardonnay and Riesling, outnumber red-grape plantings, which are led by Merlot.

Columbia Valley

By far Washington’s largest and most significant appellation, the Columbia Valley encompasses one-third of the land mass of the entire state. A section of this growing region stretches down into northern Oregon, though few vineyards are located there. Both red (65%) and white (35%) grape varieties are planted. The area shows great diversity in elevation, aspect and heat accumulation. Almost all of Washington’s other growing regions are subappellations of the larger Columbia Valley.

Walla Walla Valley

A portion of this region set in the southeastern corner of the state stretches into Oregon. Although there are vineyards in both states, most wineries are located in Washington. Due to the area’s proximity to the Blue Mountains, it receives considerably more rainfall than other areas of eastern Washington. The vast majority of vines are red-grape varieties, with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvigon and Merlot the stars.

Red Mountain

At a tiny 4,040 acres, Red Mountain is by far the state’s smallest appellation. But is also one of its most important. It’s typically Washington’s warmest growing region. Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties are the dominant players.

Published on December 18, 2018
Topics: Pacific Northwest
About the Author
Sean P. Sullivan
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Washington and Idaho

In addition to his work at Wine Enthusiast, Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, a site dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest that has twice been named ‘Best Single Subject Wine Blog’ by the Wine Blog Awards. Sullivan has authored over 100 print articles on Northwest wine. He resides in Seattle, Washington.

Email: ssullivan@wineenthusiast.net.



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