Wine produced in the U.S. state of Washington has a long and continued history. The state ranks 2nd in the US in the production of varietal wine with over 31,000 acres (125 km²), as of 2006, of vineyards, a harvest of 120,000 tons of grapes (2006), and exports going to over 40 countries around the world from the 500 wineries located in the state. Washington produces premium and superpremium wines only - in 2006 Wine Advocate bestowed two perfect scores on cabernet sauvignon vintages from Washington's Quilceda Creek winery (Red Mountain AVA). Only 15 other wines have ever been scored so highly by Wine Advocate, all from California.
Geography and Climate
The glaciers resting upon what is now Washington State retreated 16,000 years ago, leaving behind a free-draining gravel bed up to 250 ft in some places. The topsoil is sandy and stone studded which is ideal for low vigor vine growing. Persistent lava flows created basalt-based soil foundation.
The rain shadow of the Cascade Range leaves the Columbia River Basin with around 8 inches of annual rain fall. Vignerons take advantage of long sunlight hours (on average, two more hours a day than in California) and a consistent growing season. The fruit attains optimal ripening while the cool nights help the vine to shut down and lets the grape maintain natural levels of acidity.
Washington shares the same latitude as the prime wine producing areas of Europe, which is felt by many to contribute to the quality of the grapes. A drawback of the region is that extreme winter freezes occur with some regularity, killing off substantial portions of the vineyards, which then have to be brought back to full production over a period of years.
The early history of the Washington wine industry can be traced to the introduction of cinsault by Italian immigrants to the Walla Walla region. In the 1950s & 1960, the precursors of the states biggest wineries (Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Winery were founded. Throughout the rest of the 20th century the wine world discovered a new aspect of Washington wines with each passing decade starting with Rieslings and Chardonnays in the 1970s, the Merlot craze of the 1980s and the emergence of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the 1990s.
While over 80 grape varieties are grown in Washington State, the primary grapes used in the production of wine are from the Vitis vinifera family of grapes.
The main grapes used in wine production include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petite Syrah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Zinfandel.
Washington State is also home to planting of some lesser known Vitis vinifera varieties that are also used in wine production for some experimental varietals and blending. These include Abouriou, Alicante Bouschet, Aligoté, Auxerrois, Black Cornichon, Black Monukka, Black Muscat, Black Prince, Blauer Portugieser, Calzin, Carignane, Chasselas, Chauche Gris, Clevner Mariafeld, Colombard, Csaba, Ehrenfelser, Feher Szagos, Gamay, Green Hungarian, Lemberger, Madeleine Angevine, Madeleine Sylvaner, Melon de Bourgogne, Mission, Morio Muscat, Muller-Thurgau, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Ottonel, Palomino, Petite Verdot, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Pirovano, Rkatsiteli, Rose of Peru, Salvador, Sauvignon Vert, Scheurebbe, Siegerrebe, Sylvaner, Trollinger, and Trousseau.
Some notable French hybrid grapes used in wine production include Aurore and Baco Noir.
Washington is in the beginning stages of creating a wine tourism industry similar to that found in the Napa Valley. Starting in the late 1990s, the wine industry officials began talking to the state tourism officials and created the Washington Wine Tourism Task Force in 2000.
Obstacles to be overcome included remoteness of the state wine industry from major transportation hubs, lack of high-end dining and lodging, and a lack of awareness of the region by possible customers.
Factors in favor of creation of a Washington wine tourism industry include:
- Quality wines
- Different wine experience than from Napa or Sonoma
- Critical mass of wineries
- Lower costs than California
Washington has nine federally defined American Viticultural Area (AVA) mostly located in Eastern Washington. They are
- Columbia Valley AVA which encompasses the following smaller AVAs:
- Yakima Valley AVA (which encompasses the Rattlesnake Hills and the Red Mountain AVAs)
- Red Mountain AVA
- Walla Walla Valley AVA
- Horse Heaven Hills AVA
- Wahluke Slope AVA
- Rattlesnake Hills AVA (Washington State's newest appellation).
- Columbia Gorge AVA
- Puget Sound AVA (Washington's only AVA located west of the Cascades)
The southern boundaries of the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and the Walla Walla Valley AVAs extend into Oregon.
The Lake Chelan and the Ancient Lakes wine-growing regions are currently seeking federal AVA status.
The Columbia Valley AVA, known for its structured Cabernets and jammy Merlots, comprises 90% of Washington State's wine industry. This massive appellation, with over 16,000 acres (65 km²) under vine and well over 300 wineries, was the driving force behind the development of the state's wine industry.
It is geographically defined by three mountain ranges that border it on every side but the east, and by the Snake, Yakima and Columbia Rivers which converge within it. Located in the lee of the Cascade Mountains, the area is sheltered from the marine climate to the west and is left with semi-desert conditions.
While portions of this appellation cross into Oregon, the majority of wine activity occurs on the Washington State side. The Columbia Valley appellation was created as a stepping stone for the definition of other viticultural areas in the state. Subsequently, smaller and more distinct appellations have been created within it.