Columbia Valley, WA
Watermill Winery, ‘Reyna Estate Vineyard’ Viognier, Columbia Valley, WA 2018
Savage Grace Winery, 'Les Collines Vineyard' Syrah, Walla Walla, WA 2015
If you ever feel entirely overwhelmed and out of touch with Washington wine, even though it’s practically in your own backyard… Well, you’re not alone. The Columbia Valley AVA, which is the primary appellation for 99% of Washington Wine, is a massive Appellation. 11 million acres large, to be exact. That’s over 3x the size of OR’s Willamette Valley or CA’s North Coast, both massive regions in their own right. Not only is it huge, but the Columbia Valley meanders into two states (just a bit is in Oregon) and has several sub-AVA’s that do so as well (Walla Walla is partly in Oregon and Lewis-Clark Valley is mostly in Idaho). Speaking of sub-regions, there’s a lot. Seventeen of them. There’s even subregions of sub-regions. (The Rocks AVA within Walla-Walla).
While some of these are important delineations of terroir, like Walla Walla or Yakima Valley, others are mere marketing projects by Big Wine to help further sell sub-brands they’ve developed. Take ‘The Burn of Columbia Valley’ for example (yes, this is a real AVA). This was developed by the VP of Vineyards of the massive Chateau Ste. Michelle and the head of viticulture for Mercer Ranches. Guess who owns and farms 100% of vineyards in ‘The Burn’ AVA? Mercer Ranches. Guess who produces the one wine coming from these grapes? Chateau Ste. Michelle. Guess what it is? Cabernet Sauvignon… with a flaming Phoenix on the label… called Borne of Fire. Some terroir indeed!
This is just one of many examples of how larger producers manage to control the narrative of terroir in the US, which is doubly ironic because their products are inarguably the least representative of terroir. And while this seems like a wild rant from an anti-corporatist wine nerd at a small shop in NE Portland (it is), it’s an important part of the discussion with WA wine. By volume, Chateau Ste. Michelle produces 60% of all Washington wine. That’s an insane amount of market share for one company. And while you may not think you’re drinking their corporate juice, they do a good job disguising it. 14 Hands? Erath? Patz & Hall? Stag’s Leap? Yep, all Chateau Ste. Michelle. Which, actually, was Altria (Phillip Morris), and now owned by a private equity group that owns Staples, Hot Topic, and Talbot’s... Corporate America is fun.
But I digress. Let’s actually talk about the parts of the Columbia Valley that matter. From winemakers and farmers who matter. To start, here’s a map.
As you may remember from our Oregon writeup in August, the Missoula Floods are a massive geological feature of this area. As you can see on the map above, the Columbia Valley basically outlines the area where the floods took place 20,000 years ago, laying down a layer of loess on top of the pre-existing Basalt bedrock. These soils are low-water holding, nutrient poor, and easily penetrable for vine roots. Climate varies depending on which part of the huge region you’re in, but generally speaking, one can expect it to be relatively dry with sunshine nearly year round (~9 inches of rain with 200 days of sun - not quite Portland!). Cooler nights create high diurnal swings (hot days to cold nights) - which is a key factor in locking in acidity and letting grapes rest overnight. This, coupled with high elevation and even more sunshine hours during the growing season (due to the latitude) has the capability of producing wines that are capable of being relatively fruit-forward with ample levels of ripeness, medium to high alcohol and firm tannins.
And even though that style of wine is certainly what is probable, there are a number of growers and producers trying to do the opposite - make the vines struggle by farming them denser, irrigating less (or not at all), and finding cooler pockets to preserve acidity. These are the people we want to highlight.
Watermill Winery, ‘Reyna Estate Vineyard’ Viognier,
Columbia Valley, WA 2018
Grapes are an important fixture in Eastern Washington but we can't forget the region is even more widely known for its Apple production. The Brown family had been commercially farming apples for over a century before their foray into wine production began. In 2005, the family planted their first Vineyard with a commitment to high quality, smaller production wines that focused on sustainability and wildlife (aka salmon) safe farming practices. Today, the family farms several vineyards and makes both Blue Mountain Cider and their wine at the historic Watermill Winery in downtown Milton-Freewater. This building, built in 1944 as the Watermill Fruit Co, is a large stone building (with WW2 era utilitarianism making it look like an arms factory) perfect for winemaking - thick brick walls, partially underground for temperature regulation, and high ceilings for barrel stacks are a few of the features.
This Viognier from Reyna Estate Vineyard is a wonderful expression of the old world charm that Washington is capable of producing. This small production wine (250cs) is fermented and aged in 75% stainless steel and 25% neutral oak for 11 months. The wine's fresh and rich of fruit, but with tension and acidity. Notes of honeysuckle, dandelion, melon, and ripe pear. Enjoyable, simple, and pleasing!
Savage Grace Winery, 'Les Collines Vineyard' Syrah, Walla Walla, WA 2015
While Savage Grace Winery is actually on Underwood Mountain in the Columbia Gorge (separate AVA), they source from such reputable, hand-chosen vineyards in Washington that I felt compelled to feature them in this month's club. Originally a musician and recording studio owner by trade, Michael Savage (pictured below) started making wine after taking some WSET classes and falling in love with French wine. He originally turned to Underwood Mountain rather than Walla Walla because he preferred the freshness, acidity, and lower alcohol that the cooler, more temperate region produced. Paired with the commitment to (clean) natural winemaking, the end product is whites and reds with an incredible sense of place. Nothing is masked behind a ton of oak or harvested at such ripeness that the only flavor is fruit. Instead the balance of acidity, skin tannin, and crunchy fruit results in wines that are often as approachable young as they are capable of aging. And much to the fortune of us consumers, Michael has ventured beyond the Gorge to E. Washington, where a whole host of good Growers have helped him expand his repertoire.
Les Collines Vineyard (French for Foothills) is a large Vineyard at the base of the Blue Mountains in Walla Walla. They are located in the southeast part of the AVA, between Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater, on the state line (Quite literally - their southern property boundary IS the state line.) The blocks of Syrah are mostly in the center of the vineyard, at ~1200 ft of elevation and sitting on layers of wind-blown Loess and old gravel.
Like nearly all the wineries - and in turn growers - we work with, they're committed to sustainability for the environment, their workers, and the all-important salmon. When Michael gets the grapes, he uses as little human touch as possible - destemming, fermenting, and aging in neutral oak for 22 months. No new oak, no cultured yeast, and just a little sulfur at bottling.
The result? Dense black fruit with chocolate, plum, baking spice, purple flowers, and a lovely chalkiness. On the palate it has a medium body, bright driving acid and firm, gripping tannins. At 7 years old it's just starting to calm down but could happily sleep for another half decade before being uncorked.