Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Wahluke Slope provides backbone of Washington wine

The Wahluke Slope near the Columbia River downstream from Vantage, Wash., is one of the most reliable growing regions in the state.
The Wahluke Slope near the Columbia River downstream from Vantage, Wash., is one of the most reliable growing regions in the state.

The arid Wahluke Slope is an area of Washington wine country that often is misunderstood.

It’s a region off the beaten path, about a 15-minute drive south of Interstate 90 and the Saddle Mountains. It’s warm and dusty with few tasting rooms and nowhere near any population centers.

Yet, the Wahluke Slope could be considered the backbone of the Evergreen State’s wine industry and among the warmest areas. In recent vintages, some sites on the Wahluke Slope receive more growing degree days than Red Mountain.

Land is inexpensive here; water is fairly plentiful, and there are rarely any issues. Fruit ripens without risk, and winter damage routinely is mitigated by the Columbia River flowing nearby.

The slope is basically an 11-mile-wide gravel bar created 11,000 years ago by the outburst floods that occurred at the end of the last ice age. It became a federally established American Viticultural Area in 2006.

Most of the vineyards were planted in just the past two decades. Now they combine for 9,000 acres and account for roughly 15 percent of the state’s wine production. This means you have probably enjoyed wine from the Wahluke Slope without knowing of its contribution. Because of its warm weather, red varieties thrive here, especially Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

And while communities such as Desert Aire and Mattawa account for most of the population, it is within an hour’s drive of the Tri-Cities, Wenatchee and Ellensburg. That explains why several winemakers live in those cities and commute to their production facilities on the Wahluke Slope.

With the Columbia River skirting two sides of the land mass, there is plenty of agriculture, including apples and cherries. It’s still relatively new to Washington wine, with most vineyards having been planted here in the past two decades. But with few wineries and tasting rooms here, it’s unlikely you will be visiting the Wahluke Slope soon.

Here are several delicious wines made from Wahluke Slope grapes, all of which won gold medals earlier this year at the Washington State Wine Competition or the Cascadia International Wine Competition. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Seven Falls Cellars 2016 Rapids Red, Wahluke Slope, $18: Doug Gore, inducted into the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame in 2017, developed this brand for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates prior to his retirement. The reference is a historical one for the seven waterfalls in the region that once emptied into the Columbia River. Tri-City native Reid Klei now spearheads the Seven Falls winemaking, and he uses Syrah as the primary component to the Rapids Red. It is redolent of black raspberry, plums and cherries with well-managed tannins and a finish of white pepper and dark coffee.

Jones of Washington 2017 Estate Vineyards Viognier, Wahluke Slope $15: From the Jones family’s Unit 7 Vineyard near the town of Mattawa comes this gorgeous example of Viognier that’s floral and filled with touches of stone fruit such as white peach and Bosc pear. There’s a hint of warm honey in the background, and winemaker Victor Palencia’s light touch with new Hungarian oak builds beautiful body that’s capped by ample acidity for food. Suggested pairings include roasted chicken or a plate of soft cheeses with dried apricots and toasted nuts.

Milbrandt Vineyards 2016 The Estates Merlot, Wahluke Slope $26: Butch Milbrandt and his son, Buck, received placement on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 2018 with an affordably priced Cabernet Sauvignon, and this example of Merlot under The Estates tier warrants attention, too. Three of the family’s vineyards along the Wahluke Slope – Clifton Hill, Northridge and Ravenscliff – come together and create a marvelous mix of dark cherries and cassis amid rich barrel notes of toast, vanilla bean and roasted coffee. Touches of Malbec and Petit Verdot add bright purple tones and structure, which helped it earn a gold medal at the Cascadia.

Vine 46 Winery 2016 Latitude, Wahluke Slope, $24: A group of winemaking friends in Lewiston, Idaho, named their brand for the Lewis-Clark Valley’s spot along the 46th parallel. Their proprietary red blend is a party in the glass with a wide-ranging mix of Cabernet Sauvignon (48 percent) and Syrah (15 percent) joined by lesser amounts of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese and Mourvèdre. Bold aromas and full-bodied, its layering of blackberry, dark cherry and black plum includes French-roast coffee, pipe tobacco and toast that all fill the nose and the flavors. The tannins are well-managed, rounded out nicely by lingering blackcurrant.

Jones of Washington 2015 Estate Vineyards Carménère, Wahluke Slope, $30: This lesser-known red variety that’s native to Bordeaux, where it was traditionally a blending grape, now is a New World darling. It’s also found a home on the Wahluke Slope, where it receives plenty of warmth to properly ripen. Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2012 Washington Winery of the Year present its Carm with a theme of dark red fruit, cherry pipe tobacco, forest floor, anise and pepper, backed by a body of suave tannins and blood orange acidity. Judges at the Washington State Wine Competition unanimously awarded it a gold medal and voted it best of class.