Friday, July 1, 2011

Columbia Valley: Marquee Cabernet Sauvignon Region

As a part of my reporting on the World of Cabernet Sauvignon investigation, I am developing profiles of the Cabernet Sauvignon regions not previously covered in this blog.  Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley in Washington fall within that category and are profiled in this post.

Washington is second only to California in US grape production.  Due to the rain-shadow effect of the Cascade Mountains, most of the state’s quality wine production occurs to its east where rainfall averages 6-8 inches per year.  Irrigation in the wine regions is primarily from riverine sources.

Primarily due to the Cascades, Washington State wine regions operate in a continental climate of hot dry summers and cold winters.  The state’s location at 46 degrees north latitude provides 17 hours of daylight in the growing season (two more hours per day than Napa) and this, combined with extreme diurnal temperatures, allows for good ripening with acid retention.  The free draining sandy soils and cold winters serve as repellents to the phylloxera louse.
Columbia Valley

The Columbia Valley AVA (established in 1984) extends over central and southern Washington and juts into the northern portion of Oregon.  Spread over 11 million acres, this is the largest AVA in the state and itself contains a number smaller AVAs to include Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Snipes Mountain.  Ninety percent of the grapes grown in Washington are sourced from the 6,851 acres of vineyards planted in this AVA.

At 46 degrees to 45 degrees N, Columbia lies on the same parallel as the famed French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.  The climate is continental but on a day-to-day basis, it is desert-like with hot days and cool nights.  With annual rainfall of 6 to 8 inches, irrigation from the Columbia River and its tributaries is a requirement.  In addition to being a water source for the vineyards, the Columbia and its tributaries also serve to moderate summer and winter temperatures.  The area is subject to vine-killing winter freezes which mandate replanting of damaged vines.  The cold weather, along with sandy soils, is credited with keeping the phyloxerra louse at bay allowing the vines to sit on their own rootstocks.

The soil in the Columbia Valley AVA is primarily silt, sand, and loess sediment.  Most of the regions vines are planted on south-facing slopes thus increasing solar radiation in summer and  drainage in the winter months.

The most widely planted grape varieties in the region are Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Syrah.  Some of the notable wineries include Quilceda Creek, Columbia Crest, Chateau St. Michel, Col Solare, and Owen Roe.

The Cabernet Sauvignons of Washington are characterized by an easy drinking style with lower levels of tannin than enmcountered in Bordeaux and Napa. The blog site has described the Cabernets from the region as a great Cab at a fair price. The site has noted that Washington winemakers are migrating away from weedy, vegetal characteristics which they see as being associated with the younger Cabernet Sauvignon wine regions.

Walla Walla Valley AVA

This is an arid zone of 530 square miles with vineyards that stretch over into northern Oregon.  The area contains 1600 acres of vineyards and 100 wineries.

The area experiences very little rainfall due to the Cascade Mountains rain shadow and, as for the larger Columbia Valley AVA, irrigation is a key enabler.  The AVA has a 200-day-long growing season which is characterized by hot days and cool nights.  The area is subject to sudden temperature shifts  as cold air from the Blue Mountains on occasion is trapped in the valleys.  Growers are always on guard for the possibility of killing freezes during the winter.
Basaltic lava flows millions of years ago formed the Columbia Plateau of which the Walla Walla Plateau is a part.  Ice age floods have contributed rich, silty soils and huge boulders.

The primary varietals grown are Cabernet Sauvignon (41%), Merlot (26%), and Syrah (16%) along with small amounts of Cabernet Franc (4%), Sangiovese (2%), and Chardonnay (2%).  Some of the more important wineries include L’Ecole No. 41, Leonetti Cellar, Cayuse Vineyard, and Woodward Canyon.

Red Mountain AVA

The Red Mountain AVA -- the smallest in the state -- is fully encapsulated within the Yakima Valley AVA which is, in turn, a part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA.  The AVAs 4000 acres is comprised of a steep, south-facing slope running along the eastern edge of Yakima Valley.  The area supports 15 local wineries with its 600+ acres of vineyards but it is better known for providing grapes for some of the most acclaimed wines in the state.  The primary varietals grown in the AVA include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Red Mountain is desertic with 5 inches of rainfall per year, hot days (90 degrees), and cool nights (50 degrees) and experiences warmer temperatures and more sunlight than any other AVA in the state.  The Yakima river moderates temperature wjhile the cool air from the north flows down the hillside and cools the grapes.

The AVA lies between 500 and 1500 feet elevation.  The soil is a result of flooding action on the rocky landscape 10,000 years ago which resulted in deposits of nutrient-rich topsoil comprised of high-alkaline, high-calcium-carbonate gravel.

The AVA is known for its powerful, high-tannin red wines with "intense concentration of red berry flavors."  The area is especially known for its structured Cabernets and the use of Clone 8 Cabernet fruit results in Napa-style wines. 

Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Horse Heaven Hills was awarded AVA status in 2005.  The AVA, falling within the bounds of the Columbia Valley AVA,  covers 57,000 acres, is 50 miles long and 20 miles wide, and lies between 300 and 1800 feet elevation.  Of the AVAs 9644 planted acres, 2400 fall within the state of Washington, with the remainder in Oregon.  The region suports 28 vineyards and 6 wineries with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah as the primary planted varietals.

Vineyards lie on south-sloping benches along the Columbia River and are exposed to much more wind than vineyards in other Washington AVAs.  These strong winds act as deterrents to rot and fungus while serving to thicken the grape skins and concentrate the juices.

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