The most surprising news to come out of Washington in the past year was the growth of this country’s premium wine scene. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, an AVAs is short for area designation. These areas, which are geographically demarcated by the state’s Department of Agriculture, gives winemakers and vineyard owners the opportunity to specialize in a certain type of wine.
The Columbia Valley is a wine region located in Washington State that is known for producing some of the best chardonnay in the world. Despite this, most of the Columbia Valley is typically a bit off the radar for wine buffs, as it is not the most well-known region in the country. That may change in the near future, thanks to newer AVAs that are being carved out of the region.Washington State has suddenly been enriched by a whole host of new wine regions: The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) today announced the establishment of two new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The decision comes after two approvals last year as grape growers and winemakers increasingly share the Columbia Valley, Washington’s largest wine region.
I love it special, says Bob Betz, MW, founder of Betz Family Winery, Columbia Valley Division. I love the precision and detail it brings to the consumer.
The most recent sub-appointments of the Columbia Valley AVA are White Bluffs and The Burn of Columbia Valley AVA. The Goose Gap project is also expected to be approved in the coming months.
White Bluffs is the most established of the three, with 127 acres of land with vines dating back to 1972. The appellation is situated on a plateau whose upper layer is based on ancient lake sediments unique to the region. Sagemoor Vineyards, a collection of vineyards located primarily in the new appellation, has already gained a foothold, supplying fruit to nearly one in 10 wineries in the state.
We’ve known about it for a long time, but we don’t mention it by name, says Kent Walliser, director of wine operations at Sagemoor, about the impact of the white cliffs.
White Bluffs AVA / Photo courtesy of Sagemoor Vineyards
Meanwhile, Goose Gap borders the highly regarded Red Mountain. Named after a saddle between the mountains that is a frequent migration route for waterfowl, the area was first planted with grapes in 1998. She now grows 18 varieties and about 2,000 acres of vines.
While many of Washington’s districts are on southern slopes, the Goose Gap appellation is on a slightly different axis, with much of the area on northeastern slopes. This extends the growing season for grapes in the region.
We can benefit from a longer aging period than some of our neighbors for several reasons, says Sidney Anderson, winemaker at Goose Ridge Estate Vineyard and Winery, which is in the proposed appellation.
Burn is the newest of the new growing regions: most of the 1,500 acres were planted in 2015. Due to greater annual precipitation and slightly heavier soils than surrounding areas, this southeastern area above the Columbia River produces mostly Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet really expresses itself differently here than elsewhere in the Columbia Valley, says Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. He compares it to an old school Bordeaux.
With the approval of these two AGMs and the emergence of a third, there will be 16 subappellations in the Columbia Valley. That’s fitting for a region that covers 11 million acres, or a quarter of Washington state, and is home to more than 99 percent of the state’s vineyards.
Local winemakers hope the division of the region will give each area more recognition and clarity for the state, which grows about 100 grape varieties.
I think Washington state can be a little confusing because there are so many varieties growing, says Mark McNeely, owner of Mark Ryan Winery in Woodinville. We need to break things down into smaller pieces and show what works best in what place.
Goose Gap Vineyards / Photo: Darren Zemanek
This work of several years has already borne fruit: Regions such as Red Mountain and Walla Walla Valley are becoming increasingly well known for their Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah varieties, respectively.
Some fear that additional sub-appellations will further fragment the already complex history of grape diversity in the state, others hope that greater specificity will not only bring attention to these individual regions, but also raise the profile of wine in Washington as a whole.
I think we still have a lot of work to do to put Washington on the map, Munoz-Oka said. I hope that as an industry, one of the things we will do is analyze the site, highlight the variety that grows well in a particular appellation, and then explain why and how.
Even if that happens and the region is further divided, many wineries in the state will undoubtedly continue to use the broader Columbia Valley designation on their labels.
It gives them more flexibility in where they can get their fruit, says Lenny Rede, sommelier at Metropolitan Market on Mercer Island near Seattle.
It is equally certain that none of the new Washington wines will become an overnight sensation. Even the successes of Walla Walla Valley and Red Mountain were not more widely recognized until decades later. This struggle for appellate court supremacy is by no means unique to Washington.
Even today, the idea of place-based specificity in American viticulture is in its infancy, Betz said. I’m not sure that, aside from the glamorous names of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, many of the appellations currently have any real national resonance.
The attempt to change public perception begins, of course, with the region’s name, which the region’s winemakers now wear on the bottle. Then the hard work begins.
It is up to these new AGMs to do the same, says Chris Tange, MW, interim executive director of GuildSomm. The wine industry needs to fully understand what these TAAs mean. And all of this will take time as well.
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