A Weekend in Walla Walla

South Walla Walla
A beautiful vineyard view in South Walla Walla.

I have recently returned from a trip to Washington state that included as its centerpiece a weekend in the Walla Walla AVA. Along the way, I also had time for a brief stop in Red Mountain AVA as well as a chance to visit some Seattle area wineries that source their grapes from Red Mountain and Walla Walla. I’ll get into details on wines in future posts, but I thought I would start with some generalities about what I found.

In the past, Washington was known primarily for white wine, particularly Riesling. In 1985, for example, more Riesling was harvested than Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon combined. Today all four grapes are grown in roughly equal amounts and the overall production in the state, which is 13 times larger than it was in 1985, is split pretty much 50-50 between red and white varieties. Red Mountain and Walla Walla have played a big part in this change, and while white wine grapes are grown in both AVAs, make no mistake about it– this is red wine country.

Wheat country
Walla Walla is also wheat country.

Walla Walla and Red Mountain are in the rain shadow of the Cascasde Mountains, making for a semi-arid climate with annual rainfall amounts of between 5 and 20 inches. What makes farming possible in the region is irrigation. One advantage of this is that it gives grape growers the ability to precisely control the amount of water the vines get, letting them direct the growth and development of the grapes. Water control is such a big issue that some vineyards place neutron detectors deeply into the soil to accurately measure the amount of water it contains.

Soils in eastern Washington are usually fine sand on top of basalt and have good drainage. This, coupled with the cold winters the regions gets, makes an environment that is inhospitable to phylloxera and the majority of Washington grapes are planted on their own rootstock. As one winemaker I spoke with put it, “grapes grown on natural rootstock are not necessarily better or worse, but they are different.”

To my taste buds, the best grape in Washington right now is Merlot. (I’m not alone in this.) Many believe that this is related to the use of irrigation which keeps grapes from getting too plump and diluted at harvest time. Others credit the natural rootstock which encourages smaller, more concentrated berries. Whatever the reason, it was frequently the Merlots (or blends with a generous portion of Merlot) that came out on top for me in the tasting rooms (and I tend to be picky about Merlots). Sangiovese also seems to do quite well in the region, and there are some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah wines.

Most wineries are currently selling 2013 for reds and 2014 for whites. The 2013 growing season was much warmer than 2012, and it shows in the wines. In general, the 2013s are fruitier and more approachable on release than the previous vintage. I believe that the 2012s will reach greater heights, but they need a bit longer to do it. My advice is to drink the 2013s before the 2012s.

2014 was another warm year. The handful of white wines I had from this vintage were generally drinking well. Barrel samples of the 2014 reds indicate that these will also be fuller and more complex than the 2013s but not as deep as the 2012s. I’m looking forward to seeing how these develop.

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