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The Wine Regions of Washington State

Although Washington and Oregon are neighboring states, their wine regions have vastly different climates due to the location of the vineyards relative to the Cascade Mountains, which cut through both states from north to south.

Washington first became well-known for the quality of its Merlots. Lately, Washington’s Syrah wines are gaining many of the accolades. In fact, Washington may be the single best region in the United States for this exciting wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also excellent varietal wines in Washington.

Washington's climate

On Washington’s western, or coastal, side, the climate is maritime — cool, plenty of rain, and a lot of vegetation. East of the mountains, Washington’s climate is continental, with hot, very dry summers and cold winters. Most of Washington’s vineyards are situated in this area, in the vast, sprawling Columbia and Yakima Valleys. Because it’s so far north, Washington also has the advantage of long hours of sunlight, averaging 17.4 hours of sunshine during the growing season.

Washington’s winemakers have found that with irrigation, many grapes can flourish in the Washington desert. The Bordeaux varieties — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sémillon — are the name of the game. Syrah is coming up fast, and Chenin Blanc and the ever-present Chardonnay also are doing well.

Washington does have a few vineyards west of the Cascades, around Puget Sound, where Riesling and Gewürtztraminer grow well. In fact, many of the larger wineries, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, are located in the Puget Sound area, near the thriving city of Seattle. Chateau Ste. Michelle, along with the even larger Columbia Crest (both under the same corporate ownership), are the giants in the state; they account for over 50 percent of all Washington’s wines. Two other large Washington wineries are The Hogue Cellars and Washington Hills Cellars.

Washington’s wine regions

Washington has one gigantic AVA, Columbia Valley, which encompasses five other AVAs within its macro-appellation (listed in order of their general importance):

  • Yakima Valley: This region is the second largest in acreage, behind the huge Columbia Valley itself; more wineries are actually located here than in the rest of Columbia Valley. Tiny Rattlesnake Hills is a sub-appellation of Yakima Valley.

  • Walla Walla Valley: Although only 5 percent of the state’s grapes grow here, this fast-growing region in the southeast corner of Washington is home to some of the state’s top wineries, such as Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, Waterbrook Winery, Canoe Ridge Vineyard, and L’Ecole # 41.

  • Red Mountain: A relatively new AVA, the tiny Red Mountain area is actually within the Yakima Valley AVA, but its red clay soil and high altitude earned it a separate appellation. About nine wineries, including Hedges and Kiona Vineyards, concentrate on red varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.

  • Horse Heaven Hills: Recognized as a separate AVA in 2005, this area in the southernmost part of the Columbia Valley, just north of the Columbia River, has long been known as an ideal location for Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of Washington’s leading wineries, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, use grapes from vineyards here.

  • Wahluke Slope: A newer AVA, the Wahluke Slope is one of the state’s warmer appellations, known for its Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and home to Snoqualmie Vineyards.

Other AVAs include Columbia Gorge, a beautiful area in southwest Washington crossing into Oregon, which actually has an equal number of both Oregon and Washington wineries. The Lake Chelan Region, in Northern Columbia Valley, has 12 wineries. More than 50 wineries are located in the Greater Puget Sound/Seattle Area AVA; in this cool, moist climate, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are leading varieties, as well as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. About nine wineries, including Arbor Crest, are located in the Spokane Area in eastern Washington.

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