The northernmost of the West Coast wine trio, Washington state is characterised by a geography and climate which owes much of its uniqueness to its location. Rugged coastlines, deep valleys, green hills, glacial rivers and the magnificent snow-tipped Cascade Range - which include the active volcano, Mount Rainier, creates a landscape of great depth and diversity. Add to the mix the cultural capital, Olympia, and the seaport city of Seattle - home to the iconic Space Needle, the world renowned Pike Place market and the celebrated Museum of Flight - and you have a region rich in colour and abundant in attraction. The state’s wine industry forms part of this appeal, with vineyard tours and tastings a huge draw for both tourists and locals.
The first vines were planted in Washington as far back as 1825, however it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that the state’s winemakers adopted a more commercial focus. Today, the vast majority of Washington’s production takes place in the warm, arid eastern part of the region, where vines are protected from precipitation by the Cascade Mountain barrier. Puget Sound, which accounts for only a minuscule fraction of the total yield, is the only AVA in the wetter western part of the state, although much of the fruit from the eastern zone is vinified at wineries in or around Seattle.
Conditions for viticulture are made favourable by the temperature moderating effects and irrigation of the area’s many river systems, taming the intense heat of summer and reducing frost risk in the cooler seasons. At this latitude, daily sunshine hours are plentiful during the growing season, and coupled with a distinct variation between day and night-time temperatures, this results in grapes which can achieve optimal ripeness whilst preserving their acidity. The cold winters here have also made Washington’s vineyards less susceptible to Phylloxera than regions which are warmer year-round.
Washington boasts more than twenty-thousand hectares under vine, producing more wine than any other state except of course California. Varieties are numerous, with various American grapes grown alongside the favoured vitis vinifera varieties of European origin. Dark skinned fruits account for more than half of production and red wines are most commonly produced from the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah varieties. The most dominant white grapes however, are Riesling and Chardonnay.
Whilst Washington lacks the prestige of California, and the bespoke feel of its southern neighbour, Oregon, it nevertheless produces fine wines which are very much worth getting excited about. The state’s Bordeaux style blends (often Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blended with Syrah or Malbec) have received particular acclaim, and the same is true of its Riesling varietals. A relative newcomer to the wine world, it seems inevitable that as the industry - and subsequently the export market - grows, the wines of Washington will begin to establish themselves on the world stage.
Lake Chelan is known for both red and white wines from relatively high altitudes. In close proximity to the lake, the appellation experiences a more temperate growing season with extended ripening time and reduced risk of frost. Soils here are characterised by sand and quartz.
Naches Heights is one of the smallest AVA production zones in Washington. Located just to the west of Yakima City, it covers around 16 hectares, and as the name suggests, sits at relatively high altitudes. Riesling and Cabernet Franc lead the way here and provide some interesting cool climate wines.
Located in the heart of the Yakima Valley, Snipes Mountain is a small AVA territory specialising in Grenache, Syrah and Viognier. Warm days and mountain breezes ensure this 11km ridge of alluvial terrain, running along the northern banks of the River Yakima, is capable of producing some excellent red wines.