Overview of Washington Wine – Major Grape Varietals, Appellations and Terroir

During our 5-day tour of Washington State, we learned many interesting facts about Washington wine. To begin, Washington is the second largest wine-producing region in the USA after California.  As of 2016, Washington has 681 bonded wineries (Fisher, 2017), and over 900 brands.

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Old Vines at Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State

The oldest winery in Washington is Columbia Winery, established in 1962. The second oldest is Chateau St. Michelle started in 1967. Today they are both the largest wine producers in the state, and are ironically located across the road from one another in the town of Woodinville, about one hour northeast of Seattle. Though their headquarters are here, the majority of Washington grapes are grown in the eastern part of the state, which is much warmer than the cool rainy region near Seattle.

In order to take advantage of the many tourists who visit Seattle, a large number of wineries have established tasting-rooms in the town of Woodinville. Today there are more than 140 places here where visitors can sample delicious Washington wines.

We stayed for one night in Woodinville, and enjoyed the luxurious surroundings of the Willows Lodge Resort. It was located within walking distance to Columbia Winery, Chateau St. Michelle, and Januik/Novelty Hill Winery, which we visited during our stay.

Columbia Winery, Woodinville, Washington

Columbia Winery in Woodinville. Photo Credit: Washingtonwines.org

Major Grape Varietals in Washington

According to Washington Wine.org, currently there are over 50,000 acres of vineyards planted with nearly 70 varieties, with 58% red and 42% white.  The five most planted grapes, according to Washington Wine are:

Wine Grape Varietal Acres
Cabernet Sauvignon 10,297
Merlot 8,235
Chardonnay 7,654
Riesling 6,320
Syrah 3,103

From a public perspective, Washington’s signature white grape is Riesling and signature red is a Red Blend, usually including cabernet sauvignon and merlot – sometimes syrah. However, its most distinctive red is Syrah, which is produced in a Northern Rhone style with earthy, black fruit, massive tannins and high level of complexity.

Appellations, Climate and Soil

Washington has 14 appellations (AVA’s), with 13 of them in the warmer Eastern part of Washington, and only one – Puguet Sound AVA – in the cooler Western region near Seattle (see map).  The terroir reflects these extremes with a maritime climate in the west with 35 inches of annual rainfall, and a continental climate in the east with an average of only 8 inches per year rainfall.  Eastern Washington has a hot, dry climate in the summer with an average of one more hour of sunlight, around 16 hours per day, compared to other wine growing regions.

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Wine Regions and AVAs of Washington State. Photo Credit: Washingtonwines.org

A unique feature is the large swings in temperature between day and night (diurnal shift) of up to 40 degrees F, allowing grapes to ripen longer and retain freshness.  Of the 14 AVA’s Yakima Valley is the oldest, established in 1983 and Lewis-Clark the newest in 2016.  Some of most well-known AVAs include Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and Walla Walla Valley.

The soil of Washington state is a mixture of volcanic basalt, sandy loam, silt, and some caliche (limestone).  Its ancient geological past of multiple volcanic activity, megaflood, and winds created this unique composition, which for the most part has allowed the state to remain phylloxera free.  Because of this many of the vineyards are planted on their own roots, instead of grafted to rootstocks. Below is a photo at Ferguson Vineyard near Walla Walla showing unique basalt cliff.

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Our MW Group photo with unique vineyard geology (basalt cliff) near Walla Walla

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