Washington’s wine country stretches from the shores of Lake Chelan to Walla Walla Valley, from the Columbia Gorge to the Puget Sound.
It’s a Balancing Act
For years, Washington wine country had a perception problem. “Wait a minute, doesn’t it rain all the time in Washington State?” people thought. “How can they make wine?”
Well, rainy weather is only half the story. Literally. The Cascade mountains split the state into east and west, creating a rain shield that dumps the moisture on the Seattle-side of the state and leaves the eastern side sunny and bone-dry. So when we talk about Washington wine country, we’re primarily talking about the parched eastern side, where the days are warm and the nights are cool.
Up here at the top of the country, the long hours of summer sunshine stretch luxuriously into the late evening. During the summer months, the vineyards of eastern Washington receive as much as two hours more sunshine than the vineyards of California. This extended exposure to sunlight, coupled with crisp, cool nights, when the temperatures can drop precipitously, translates into near perfect conditions for developing wines that combine ripe fruit flavors with bright, refreshing acidity–in a word, Washington wines have “balance.”
The Soil Situation
Together with climate, soil is the other key factor in predicting whether wine grapes will prosper in a particular place. In eastern Washington, the soils are the result of an incredible cataclysmic event. At the end of the last Ice Age, a series of massive floods (known as the Missoula Floods) tore through the area, scouring soils here and depositing sediments there in the post-flood slackwaters. These soils were laid down willy-nilly over basalt that had been deposited some 15 million years earlier when the region was buried under hot flowing lava. These days, conditions in the area are considerably more hospitable.
What Grows Here?
Eastern Washington is gaining renown for its red Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Syrah, a grape whose original home is in the Rhone Valley of France, is also coming on strong in Washington’s warmer appellations. Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese are getting their share of plantings, as well. Chardonnay and Riesling are primary white grapes, with Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Viognier on the rise.