Walla Walla Valley is Washington State’s “reddest” appellation. A recent study shows the area is 95% planted to red wine varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah leading the way.
So why aren’t there more white wine grapes grown in Walla Walla?
“It’s an economic thing,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, one of Washington’s founding wineries.
Clubb says the disparity between the prices of red and white wine grapes make the latter challenging to plant.
“You’re seeing the better vineyard sites able to charge $3,000 to $4,000, [or] even more per ton [for red wine grapes],” says Clubb. “White wines, the most you’re getting per ton—and I mean the most—is like $1,800. If you do the math on that, there’s a thinner profit margin with the whites, unless it’s an estate-driven deal.”
L’Ecole, though, has been doing just that. It’s made high-quality, estate-grown white wines from Walla Walla since 1999. However, the winery has had little company.
Cult producer Cayuse Vineyards has long made a top-quality Viognier, but the wine is sold by mailing list allocation and nearly unobtainable. The same goes for Reynvaan Family Vineyards, which makes extraordinary, but allocated, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and a white Rhône-style blend.
Recently, however, things seem to be changing in Walla Walla Valley, as an increasing number of winemakers are trying their hand at white wines. Though the numbers remain small, there has been enough success to convince skeptics.
“I have always said Walla Walla is too hot for whites—stick to reds,” says Chris Figgins, president/wine director at Figgins Family Wine Estates, which includes the valley’s first winery, Leonetti Cellar, founded in 1977. “Now I’m starting to taste some really fun wines.”
In particular, Figgins says he’s excited about the potential for white Rhône varieties like Grenache Blanc and Roussanne.
“They’re lively. They are interesting. They’re well balanced and have some nerve.”
What’s changed? In part, it’s been the steady drumbeat of Tim Donahue, instructor of enology at Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture.
Donahue laughs when asked what’s contributed to the recent changes. “It’s been 10 years of me beating everyone over the head,” he says.
Donahue has encouraged students and area winemakers to consider white wine production, given the quicker turnaround time for their release and lower overall cost to make.
“From a portfolio perspective, Walla Walla wasn’t particularly diversified when I got here,” says Donahue. “It was all big reds, which is great if you have the capital and cash flow to make those happen. With white wines, it really helps wineries meet that immediate cash need to keep them afloat.”
“It’s been 10 years of me beating everyone over the head.” –Tim Donahue, instructor of enology, Walla Walla Community College Institute for Enology and Viticulture
However, it’s not just cashflow that has Donahue championing Walla Walla Valley whites. Growers have also explored higher-elevation sites that can offer cooler temperatures and longer hang time compared to many areas of the larger Columbia Valley.
“A number of regions in Walla Walla are really some of the best places in Washington to grow white wine,” says Donahue.
Perhaps most intriguing, while irrigation is required to grow wine grapes in most of desert-dry eastern Washington, areas of the valley near the Blue Mountains that see greater rainfall might provide an exception.
“There may be some places in the foothills of the Blues where they can dry-grow white wine [grapes],” says Donahue. “That’s a new frontier that’s just being explored.”
Recent high-quality white wine offerings include Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Others are exploring the potential for Chardonnay and other white varieties.
“We’ll see where it goes,” says Figgins, who now makes a dry Walla Walla Valley Estate Riesling under the family’s Figgins label.
While the white wines that come out of Walla Walla Valley show potential, even when fully realized, economic realities mean the wines are certain to remain more limited in production and reach than their red counterparts.
“If the economics were better, you’d see more people doing it,” says Clubb. “The bigger production whites we make that are at more competitive price points, you could not do that in Walla Walla. I wouldn’t even think of doing it.”
Try seeking out these Walla Walla Valley white wines
Cayuse 2017 Cailloux Vineyard Viognier; $75, 93 points. Outrageous aromas of freshly cut white peach, nectarine, wet stone and honeysuckle lead to intensely flavorful peach and apricot notes that retain a sense of deftness. The finish persists an easy 30 seconds. It brings impressive energy, balance and intensity. To those who don’t believe minerality exists, this wine serves as a counterpoint to the argument.
Grosgrain 2018 Philips Vineyard Albariño; $24, 90 points. Fermented and aged in concrete eggs and neutral barrels, this inaugural release from the winery brings appealing notes of freshly rubbed herbs, lemon pith and flower. The medium-plus palate walks a fine balance between flavor expression and elegance. Editors’ Choice.
Kerloo 2018 Blue Mountain Vineyard Grenache Blanc; $20, 91 points. Brooding aromas of lemon peel, wet stone, mango and herbs lead to broad, flavorful citrus, tropical fruit and mineral notes. The acidity carries the finish off into the distance. It’s lovely. Editors’ Choice.
L’Ecole No. 41 2018 Luminesce Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon; $22, 91 points. Sauvignon Blanc takes the lead in this vintage, making up 55% of the blend. Aromas of fig, spice, corn husk and herb emerge on the nose. The palate is considerably more giving, with a creamy feel to the fig and spice flavors that lead to a warm finish. Editors’ Choice.
Reynvaan Family Vineyards 2017 Estate White In the Rocks Vineyard Grenache Blanc; $60, 92 points. Astonishing aromas of wet stone are out front, along with notes of lees, almond skin and lemon. Textured, leesy, mineral-driven flavors follow. Drinking this wine is like licking a rock. It is singular and unique. Editors’ Choice.
Rôtie Cellars 2018 Southern White; $32, 92 points. This wine is a blend of 68% Viognier, 20% Roussanne and 12% Marsanne. The aromas draw you into the glass, with notes of mineral, whole peach, melon and citrus. A full-bodied flavorful palate, chock-full of ripe peach and pear notes, follows, accented by a lovely sense of acidity. There’s a bright future for Walla Walla whites, and this is one of the wineries leading the way. Best from 2021 until 2025. Cellar Selection.
Saviah 2018 Saviah Estate Vineyard Viognier; $30, 91 points. Coming out of the winery’s estate vineyard in the Rocks District and fermented in concrete egg, the wine boasts generous aromas of ripe peach, honeysuckle, melon rind and mineral, followed by full-bodied, nectarous, textured stone fruit flavors. It’s like drinking a fresh peach in a glass of rocks. Editors’ Choice.