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Best Kept Wine Secrets: The Columbia Valley Wine Regions

Posted by on July 20th

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Why is it that California gets all the love when Washington State makes great wines, too? The pat answer is that California has been growing grapes longer, and it’s a core feature in America’s wine past.   

Napa Romantic

What’s all the fuss with California anyway?

History is important for those sommeliers who devour the Oxford Guide to Wine like it’s 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 special 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 in Columbia Valley

So what makes this region amazing? 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 that 37 inches of rain from Seattle?  Just saying, 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. In the winter, ice expands into the fractures, creating evermore fissures into the stone.    The most important 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 in the world where wine is made from grapevines is growing on its own roots.   

Since the early part of the 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 far too many sommeliers) think the heat is essential for perfectly ripe grapes,  but it’s not. It’s temperate temperatures in the day, cold nights, and plenty of sunshine. 75 and sunny will always beat out 90 and hazy for higher quality grapes. On average, Columbia Valley gets two hours of daily sunlight more than Napa Valley. The growing season is longer than Napa, too, which also is a boon for wine quality.   

Great Wine Regions in Washington State

A few places to look out for

A few smaller wine regions (AVAs or American Viticultural Areas are the important wine lingo). Some of the best wines are coming from these embedded AVAs. 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 great  Syrahs, too.  

Wahluke Slope

The Grenache from this 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.   

Yakima Valley

I love the syrah that comes from here. Top-notch Chardonnay and Riesling, too. Cabernet Franc is world-class. 

2 thoughts on “Best Kept Wine Secrets: The Columbia Valley Wine Regions”

  1. Couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the article. We’ve been to Walla Walla twice and the Yakima area once in the past three years and are converted devotees! Wine tourism and tasting the way it should be – no huge crowds and plenty of opportunity to speak with the winemakers themselves. Great restaurants in the Walla Walla area as well make for a complete experience.


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