Walla Walla, Washington State
Today we journey to the Pacific Northwest of the USA to Washington State- not to be confused with Washington DC, the Capital city on the Atlantic East Coast where Mr Trump has just taken up residence. A region undergoing a period of unprecedented growth over the last 20 years; what makes it significant?
The AVA (American Viticultural Area) of Walla Walla, and the wine industry of Washington in general has a fairly short history. In 1969, when California was experiencing the ‘Wine Boom’ as the rest of the country decided to drink USA made wine, there were 2 wineries across the whole of Washington State! Fast forward 45 years and the story has most definitely changed; as American winemakers better understood how to work in cooler climates and the American palate came to understand more than Zin and oaky, fat Chardy, winery numbers grew- as of 2014, there were over 800 producers! What is grown has also changed over the years. Today the majority of classic vine varieties are found in this region (more on that later), however historically, Washington State specialised mainly in growing the native American grape variety Concord, which flourishes in the cool climate, but gives a noticeable aroma described as ‘foxy’. Not exactly something you’d classify as enjoyable… CLICK FOR LARGER MAP
Walla Walla AVA is located in the south-eastern corner of Washington State, right on the border with, and with vineyards actually crossing over into, Oregon. The region gets its name from a tributary of the great Columbia River, the Walla Walla River, on the banks of which many vineyards can be found. Whilst the western half of Washington state receives huge amounts of rain (any of you who have been to Seattle can attest to this!), the east is actually incredibly dry. This is due to the Cascade Mountains, a huge spine of mountains that runs north-south from Canada to Oregon, effectively cutting the state in half. This blocks any maritime influence to Walla Walla AVA, as well as creating an extremely effective cloud barrier and rain shadow- parts of the eastern section of Washington are classified as a desert!
This means Walla Walla is a region of extremes; winters are harsh and cold, getting down to -26 Celsius in mid-winter. Summers on the other hand are hot and dry with abundant sunshine. This warm sunshine during the day is followed by nights that are cooled by air from the mountains. This cold, alpine air pools in the valley, cooling the vines overnight and extending the ripening period of the grapes, which allows them to retain acidity as they develop rich varietal character. Another effect of the Cascade Mountains is that humidity, and its partner in viticulture disease risk, are rarely issues in Walla Walla. In summary, you need to know what you’re doing as it is a big challenge, but some fantastic wines can be made in Walla Walla AVA!
The warm, sunny days, cool nights and lack of rain lend themselves to classical full-bodied red French varietals; around 60% of total plantings in the region are of the ‘Bordeaux 5’ (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec), and about 25% are Syrah. Some new winemakers are even trying their hands at the iconic Australian Cabernet/Syrah blend! In regards to white wines, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are the most grown.
The soil type across Walla Walla AVA has a huge effect on the wines, however not in the sense you may think. Soils here are wet sandy loam- imagine the banks of a river. While not a particularly exciting or nutrient rich soil, it has some serious advantages; first, the damp soils provide life-giving water to the vines in this surprisingly arid region as the water in the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers is fresh snowmelt. Secondly and most interestingly, it protects vines from the nasty Phylloxera louse. This native American critter which destroyed 95% of the European wine industry in the mid-to-late 19th century cannot move through the damp, grainy soil and therefore does not decimate vines by chewing through roots in Walla Walla like they do pretty much everywhere else.
Now there is only one way to prevent Phylloxera destroying your vineyard, and that is to graft your vines onto specially-bred rootstock that have natural resistance to the louse- Phylloxera is as yet immune to all our attempts to destroy it. These roots however have been known to have an effect on the vines in regards to how they translate the soil of their terroir into wine. The vast majority of vines in Walla Walla however grow on their own roots, and this is believed to give unique flavours to their wines due to the ability to absorb different nutrients. In addition to this, the un-grafted vines are more resistant to cold temperatures; in grafted vines there is a cut where the root is attached to the vine, and water gets into this cut, exploding the vine in very cold temperatures- a very important advantage in the cold winters of the Walla Walla!
Wine Sales Manager