Washington gained its 15th appellation September 2nd, with the approval of the Royal Slope, the U.S.’s latest American Viticultural Area (AVA).
While some newly approved growing regions are in early stages of viticultural exploration, the Royal Slope has already proven its mettle. Grapes have been grown in the area since 1984, and produced Wine Enthusiast’s first 100-point Syrah in the state, the Charles Smith 2006 Royal City, named after a town in the new appellation.
“The raw material from The Slope for both Syrah and I think even Grenache, to a certain degree, is pretty spectacular,” says Morell.
Syrahs tend to exhibit a combination of Yakima Valley meatiness and Walla Walla Valley brine. Currently, 20 varieties are planted across 1,900 acres, with the slope capable of producing everything from high quality sparkling wines to Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Most appellations just can’t do that,” notes Morell.
What sets the new Royal Slope AVA apart?
Looking at a map, the Royal Slope is immediately identifiable.
“When you look on satellite images, it’s easy to draw a line around [the region],” says Dr. Alan Busacca. Along with Richard Rupp, Ph.D., he was contracted to write the AVA application by local growers.
To the west, the appellation is bounded by the Columbia River. To the north is the ridge of the Frenchman Hills, and to the south is Crab Creek Coulee and ultimately the Saddle Mountains. The Royal Slope is immediately south of the Ancient Lakes appellation and 10 miles to the north of the Wahluke Slope.
As a growing region, the Royal Slope has two defining features: the generally south-facing slope that gives the area its name, and its higher elevation, which ranges from 610 to 1,756 feet.
“It is considerably higher than most of the state’s growing regions,” says Mike Januik, owner of Januik Winery and winemaker at Novelty Hill. The latter sources most of its fruit from the Royal Slope.
Josh Lawrence, whose family first planted crops on the Royal Slope in the 1960s and who now farms 450 acres of grape vines there, says the range of elevation is part of the slope’s strength.
“Not only do you have this long stretching south slope, but you have a pretty big range in elevation, which provides you a lot of microclimates,” says Lawrence.
The Royal Slope is part of the Yakima fold belt, a series of ridges that define a number of Washington’s grape growing regions, including Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills. The southern aspects of these slopes are ideal for grape growing.
Due to its elevation, one of the defining characteristics of Royal Slope wines is higher natural acidity.
“Many of the white wines tend to be beautifully bright and fresh,” says Morell. “At the same time, red wines show a sense of vibrancy and energy.”
Morell even planted vines for sparkling wines with impressive results.
“We can produce 10, 10 and a half [percent alcohol by volume] base sparkling wines without having to manipulate any acid profiles or any other aspect of the wine,” he says.
But this is where the Royal Slope’s diversity impresses. “If you go 200 yards to the southeast, all of the sudden, you pick up 400–600 heat units and now you’re growing beautiful Cabernet,” says Morell.
The grade of the Royal Slope also allows cool air to drain, protecting against frosts and freezes and offers extended hang time.
“You could leave your grapes hanging until sometime in November in most years,” says Januik. He notes that Royal Slope red wines are remarkable for their “intense” color.
“I am always surprised at just how much color there is,” he says. “My wife said one year, ‘Do you think it’s possible for a wine to have too much color?’ ”Look for Royal Slope labeled wines on shelves soon to decide for yourself.
Wines to Try from Royal Slope AVA
Alleromb 2017 Corfu Crossing Vineyard Grenache Columbia Valley (WA); $62, 92 points.
Novelty Hill 2018 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Chardonnay Columbia Valley (WA); $23, 92 points. Editor’s Choice.
Gård 2017 Thunderstone Lawrence Estate Wines Lawrence Vineyards Syrah Columbia Valley (WA); $45, 91 points.