Header Image: Pacific Rim Winery Riesling vineyards in Washington's Columbia Valley
If you don’t already associate Washington state with wine, that’s about to change. Washington’s wine industry is no niche venture. The state is home to some very reputable wineries, and is adored by wine lovers for its high quality wines that taste uniquely Washington.
In Washington there are over 50,000 vineyard acres, producing over 16 million cases of wine each year. Nearly all of these vineyards are located in the Columbia Valley in the eastern part of the state. Unlike the western part of the state, which is famed for gloomy and rainy weather, the Columbia Valley and its sub-AVAs feature a more desert-like climate. That sunny, dry climate, paired with higher altitude vineyards, makes for distinctive wines that represent the special growing conditions of Washington.
The Whites of the Columbia Valley:
While Washington does produce some great Chardonnays (it is the most popular white grape in America, after all) the white wine that it is really known for is Riesling. Yes, really, Riesling. It’s the wine adored by Sommeliers and those in the know, for it’s ability to play nicely with traditionally hard to pair foods, like spicy and heavy dishes. That food-pairing super power comes from its refreshing acidity, (often) slight sweetness and aromatic flavors.
So what’s the big deal about Washington Riesling? Simply that the growing conditions in the Columbia Valley are perfect for the grape that enjoys the struggles of a dry climate with cool evenings (featuring a dramatic temperature drop from the warmer days) and mineral rich soils. These special conditions drew in Riesling zealots, Pacific Rim Winery in the 1990s, which really kicked off the Washington Riesling craze.
The Reds of the Columbia Valley
While the Rieslings certainly make a splash, over half of the grapes planted in the Columbia Valley are red grapes. Like other regions in the US, Cabernet does lead the way in plantings, however this is not a King-Cab country. Not really, anyways.
While Washington does produce elegant Cabernets, what is interesting about the region is their emphasis on red blends, which stands in direct contrast to many regions in California, which seem to focus on single varietals. In Washington these blends tend to either be a Cab-dominant Bordeaux style blend, which could also include Merlot, Malbec and Cab Franc, or it will be the uniquely-Washington Cab, Merlot, Syrah blend, which is commonly abbreviated to CMS. These incredibly balanced blends are prized for their savory and unique earthy qualities, that are often described as dusty, but in a good way. Again, you have the arid climate, high altitude, mineral rich soils and large temperature dips between day and night to thank for this Columbia Valley characteristic. You’ll find quality throughout the Columbia Valley and its sub-regions, but if you can get your hands on reds from Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain regions in particular, definately buy a bottle (or more)!
The red wine doesn’t stop at Cab blends though. Winemakers have noticed that the soils that produce savory and earthy vines are a natural match for Syrah, which is why Syrah is now the third most planted red grape in the state. Washington Syrahs are earthy, with some savory notes of herbs or peppers, and overall, just well balanced.
Give it a swirl:
The Riesling from the Riesling Revolutionaries: Pacific Rim Riesling
Apple, peach, mandarin and a slight sweetness. Try with that spicy food you've been craving.
The Cab that’s more of a Bordeaux-style blend: Double Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon
A Cabernet that hangs out on the lighter side, where dark fruit meets a little earthiness. You'll want to sip this by the fire on a leather chair.
The Cab, Merlot, Syrah style blend: Hedges Red Mountain Red Blend
A flagship wine of the estate, this red blend is more savory and earthy than it is fruity. It is an awesome example of Red Mountain "terroir."
The Syrah worth savoring: Hedges Red Mountain Syrah
A little spicy, a little peppery, a little smoky, we aren't talking BBQ, we're talking Washington Syrah. Plays nice with food, BBQ or otherwise.
We hope we’ve convinced you to go north in your wine journey. Cheers to some seriously-good Washington sips.