There haven’t been many celebrations in the Northwest wine industry this summer, but a few glasses were raised Sept. 2 when the federal government established the Royal Slope in Washington state’s Columbia Basin as an American Viticultural Area.
Why is this significant? Well, unless you follow small-town high school football in this state, few folks aside from some of our region’s top winemakers know how to get to Royal City.
“I sell to around 44 wineries,” said Ed Kelly, vineyard manager and viticulturist at Stillwater Creek Vineyard, which looks down the Royal Slope upon Royal City. “We have a lot of good clients, and we have an interesting group of winemakers who come here for our grapes.”
Wine lovers may know of the Wahluke Slope AVA, which is among the state’s warmest growing areas, and anyone who has seen a show at the Gorge Amphitheater has been in the cooler Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA.
Tucked in between those two regions is the Royal Slope, which becomes the state’s 15th AVA. Other petitions from Washington pending approval include Candy Mountain, Goose Gap, The Burn of Columbia Valley and White Bluffs.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) uses the AVA system so vintners can better describe the origin of their wines and help consumers identify these wines. It’s a concept that follows the lead of other wine producing regions around the world. In France, they are referred to as an appellation. In Canada, these specific areas are categorized as a geographical indication (GI).
Some of the state’s most important sites, such as Stillwater Creek and Lawrence Vineyards now fall within the Royal Slope AVA, so customers can expect to see something other than “Columbia Valley” on the label of bottles of wine from those vineyards.
Acclaim achieved by vintners with wines produced from these vineyards provided support for the AVA petition, and one of the state’s premier winemakers is Mike Januik, who works extensively with Stillwater Creek fruit for Novelty Hill Winery in Woodinville as well as his eponymous brand.
“Unlike other growing regions surrounding the area, Stillwater Creek’s soils are distinguished by a large amount of fractured basalt,” Januik says. “At an elevation of 1,200-1,500 feet, the soils found here are unlike soils deposited by the Great Missoula flood in neighboring appellations, further differentiating the Royal Slope from other vineyards outside the boundaries of the AVA.”
Alan Busacca, a former geology professor at Washington State University, played a critical role in crafting the AVA petition.
Kelly, who is in his 10th harvest at Stillwater Creek, also points out the combination of higher elevation along the Royal Slope and fewer heat units. At Stillwater Creek, the elevation is 1,400 feet, and the growing degree days it receives, aka heat units, sit at about 3,000. The Wahluke Slope just to the south eclipses 3,600 GDD — about the same at Red Mountain.
“Those are reasons why you can grow so many varieties here,” Kelly said. “We’re more like the northern Rhône (in France) at around 2,900 heat units, and I think the sun is less harsh up here. Over on the Wahluke Slope, when it gets too hot, photosynthesis slows down. But we don’t often get barn-burner days, which can actually extend your growing season. This is just a wonderful location here.”
Stillwater Creek was first planted in 2000 by the Alberg family, and it spans 230 acres of vines with Cabernet Sauvignon making up nearly a third of the acreages. In addition to 40 acres of Merlot, Kelly also manages 12 acres of Petit Verdot, one of the largest such plantings in the Northwest.
In 2007, Stillwater Creek was the first Columbia Valley vineyard certified “Salmon Safe” by Seattle’s Stewardship Partners, a group that established environmental practices to help protect water quality and habitat.
Here are several award-winning wines that starting on Oct. 2, 2020 can carry “Royal Slope” on the label.
Three of Cups 2019 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Le Voeu Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley $18: This crowd-pleasing example of this white Bordeaux variety smells happy with sugared passionfruit and apricot blossom. It’s medium bodied with a pleasantly broad palate as the foundation for the lemon meringue pie flavors; lemon curd, crust and toasted meringue.
Novelty Hill 2017 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $30: Mike Januik was a decade into his role as head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle when he resigned to launch his own brand and help spearhead the Stillwater Creek Vineyard project for Tom Alberg, Jr. Novelty Hill is the Alberg family brand, and Januik also makes these wines. His latest Cab shows refinement, balance and restraint as dark blue fruit akin to blackcurrant, plump blueberry and Bing cherries dominate. The light touch of oak, dusty tannins and lingering elderberry juice make for a tantalizing finish.
Pondera Winery 2017 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Malbec, Columbia Valley, $34: Woodinville’s Shane Howard used Stillwater Creek Vineyard fruit to rake in five gold medals at the Washington State Wine Competition, and this Malbec was among those. It is redolent of Marionberry, black cherry and baking spices, backed by a delicious mouthfeel and long finish of plum skins.
Orenda Winery 2017 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley $35: Snoqualmie Valley winemaker Samantha Kent continues to wow judges with her Cabernet Franc program, which is all about red fruit. Strawberry, sweet roasted red pepper and crushed gravel send an invitation to explore the wine in more detail. The acid lifts and highlights the fruit as cherry Popsicle juice, savory herbs and a light earth quality provide depth.
Merry Cellars 2016 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Mourvèdre-Syrah, Columbia Valley, $48: Computer scientist Patrick Merry brought award-winning winemaking to the college town of Pullman, Wash., when he launched this winery for his family, and he’s focused on Stillwater Creek for much of his program. This Rhône-inspired blend captures both the luscious blackberry and pomegranate fruit offered by Syrah and the pepper associated with Mourvèdre, tied together with cassis and a smooth and long finish.