Why does California get all the love when Columbia Valley wine is fantastic? The pat answer is that California has been growing grapes longer, and it’s a core feature in America’s wine past.
What’s all the fuss with California anyway?
History is essential for those sommeliers who devour the Oxford Guide to Wine like the latest Nora Roberts novel, but I fear the answer may be a bit more prosaic. California is just a helluva more romantic. Napa Valley is so much more suave-sounding than Columbia Valley. Russian River or Yakima? Knights Valley or Walla Walla? Sometimes something so simple can skew a nation’s opinion.
That’s great for those who know how unique Washington’s Columba Valley is and all the smaller regions nestled within. As long as big money is firmly focused on Napa, you’ll be able to enjoy higher quality wines at much lower prices in Columbia Valley.
Geeking out on Columbia Valley Wine
So what makes this region unique? It’s geology, technology, and meteorology.
Great wine regions like Columbia Valley are often a result of some crazy violent geological activity. For 60 million years, this region was nothing but hot lava flows. That was followed by 2 million years of glaciers during the Ice Ages. Follow that up with a two-day flood that equaled 600 cubic miles of water, the equivalent of Lake Huron.
In other words, mother nature put Columbia in a Vitamix and maxed it out. The valley is now an uneven puree of cracked granite, volcanic gravel, windblown sands, and silt. This spectacular mess is poured onto both sides of the Columbia River, separated from the Pacific coast by the Cascade mountains.
Seattle Needs a Hug
Why does all the rain stay in Seattle?
Those mountains matter a lot. Despite a temperate climate, Columbia Valley is a desert. It often gets less than seven inches of rain a year. The mountains are high enough that most clouds rolling off the pacific can’t make it past Seattle’s coffee shops. This is called a rain shadow.
In comparison, Napa gets about 25 inches. 20 is considered the minimum for growing grapes commercially. This is where technology comes in: nearly all grapes in Columbia Valley are irrigated—tired of all that irrigation? Maybe we should dynamite off the mountain tops and bleed off some of Seattle’s 37 inches of rain? Just saying it might be a win-win.
Rocks and Sand
Mother nature made a near-perfect wine region.
Geology is one of the two points that make Columbia Valley shine. Fast draining soils like gravel keeps disease away, and the cracked bedrock is a natural repository for water. Ice expands into the fractures in the winter, creating evermore fissures in the stone. The most crucial bit of geology may seem odd: it’s all that sand in the soils. However, it keeps a specific bug at bay and gives Columbia Valley a unique distinction: It is one of the only places where wine is made from grapevines growing on its roots.
Since the early 20th Century, we’ve been grafting disease-tolerant rootstocks onto grapevines. It’s been essential since nearly every vineyard worldwide is infected with phylloxera, which attacks the roots of wine-producing grapevines. Unfortunately, sandy soils are the only type that phylloxera does not thrive in, and almost no wine regions have the right mix of sand-to-soil that keeps the roots healthy and productive.
Grapey n’ the Sunshines
The worst name for a band, ever
Most folks (and many sommeliers) think the heat is essential for perfectly ripe grapes, but it’s not. It’s temperate temperatures during the day, cold nights, and plenty of sunshine. 75 and sunny will always beat out 90 and hazy for higher quality grapes. Columbia Valley gets two hours of daily sunlight more than Napa Valley. As a result, the growing season is longer than in Napa, a boon for wine quality.
Great Columbia Valley Wine Regions
A few places to look out for
The Columbia Valley winery region is divided into many smaller wine regions. I’ve listed a few to get you started on your wine adventures in the Pacific Northwest.
Walla Walla Valley
On the Oregon border, this is Greatness incarnate. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot impress. A few superb Syrahs, too. Considered the top Columbia Valley wine region for good reason.
The Grenache from this Columbia Valley wine region is hard to beat. Rhone-style blends are worth seeking out.
Horse Heaven Hills
Hate the name; I love the wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are royalty here.
I love the syrah that comes from here. Top-notch Chardonnay and Riesling, too. Cabernet Franc is world-class.