Andy Perdue

New AVAs help define Washington wine

I recall a discussion I had years ago with another wine writer after the Snipes Mountain American Viticultural Area was approved in 2009. He said it was silly for Washington state to have another appellation.

As I explored and learned about Snipes Mountain, the more I realized it was a pretty cool place with an amazing history that was important to weaving the tale of Washington wine.

Some 15 years ago, when the northern Willamette Valley was further divided into six smaller AVAs, a colleague noted that Oregon was starting to look like Burgundy, which is famously divided into many small appellations.

In the case of Oregon and its focus on Pinot Noir, having many smaller AVAs makes sense to me as grape growers and winemakers further define Oregon into smaller areas as their understanding of the region grows. When I look at a bottle of Oregon Pinot, the AVA listed on the bottle instantly tells me a great deal of what I need to know about the wine, and ultimately helps me make a buying decision.

I’m bringing this up because there are seven new AVAs working their way through the federal government bureaucracy. You can read more about the proposed AVAs on page 18. Some might see Washington’s current 14 AVAs as confusing, maybe even overkill. I see it as something else. I see it as the maturity of the Washington wine industry.

As our understanding of the 11-million-acre Columbia Valley grows, it only makes sense to refine it, to redefine it. For example, when I see a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain, I have a pretty good idea that I’m getting a red with bold red and black fruit flavors backed by rigid structure.

If I see a white wine from Washington’s Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA, I expect a fascinating wine laced with minerality and acidity. I think of this region as the Chablis of Washington. A Riesling from there might tempt me to buy a case because I’m so confident in its quality, based only on its place of origin.

Napa Valley, arguably America’s most historic and important wine region, has reached mythic levels of importance by being both a model for quality and consistency since it came to global importance in 1976 as the result of Steven Spurrier’s historic Judgment of Paris tasting.

Since then, the relatively small Napa Valley region (the whole valley would easily fit inside the Yakima Valley) has been carved into 16 distinct viticultural regions.

Top winemakers no doubt know which grapes are best in each sub-AVA, how to handle them, the best yeast to pull the best flavors from their juice, resulting in the best possible wine.

Having more AVAs in Washington means we understand better the nuances of the Columbia Valley. Washington wine is pretty good now, but these additional levels of insight will lead to new levels of quality. In places such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, this level of understanding of the soil under the vines is earned from decades of working with the resulting fruit, raising the level of understanding of its nuances, which allows growers and winemakers to wring the best potential from the resulting wine.

I spoke with one Red Mountain grape grower who has gone so far as orienting his grapevine rows so the region’s ample sunshine will be evenly distributed on both sides of the vine, producing more even ripening, which equals more uniformly ripe grapes, a detail that equals higher quality fruit, which can mean better raw materials, which creates a better opportunity for even better wines.

Another Red Mountain vineyard owner has planted six clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. At some point, he’ll probably need to replant his vineyard (weather or disease being the likely culprits), at which time he will be able to plant more of the clone that has shown to be the greatest for that particular plot of land. More likely, it will be a combination of clones to take full advantage of the vineyard site’s soils, heat units and other factors. All these details will help produce better grapes and give the winemaker a better opportunity to make the best possible wine, which ultimately benefit us.

To get down to ninja-level terroir work, some growers have identified vines that do particularly well in their vineyards, then propagate them to plant more of them, essentially identifying new clones specific to their vineyard sites. We’ve seen this happen elsewhere in the wine world, including Europe and Argentina; it’s going on elsewhere in the Northwest, including the Willamette Valley and Yakima Valley.

This is the next-level work to be done in Washington wine country. This is the kind of refining that will help separate Washington from other wine regions. This is why nobody will make Malbec exactly like Mendoza in Argentina, because growers there have identified specific clones of grapes to fit their vineyards and winemaking styles.

Identifying and matching vines to locations is the hard work that is next up for Washington. It’s already being done in Washington’s vineyards and wineries, and it’s the kind of granular work being done in the laboratories, test vineyards and classrooms at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Washington State University Wine Science Center in Richland.

As a wine lover, I welcome Washington’s new AVAs, along with the inevitable research that will will go into understanding what makes each unique. That will mean exploring them through the resulting wines.

What could be more fun than that?

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