Exploring Washington State’s Columbia Valley

  • By Jacky Blisson MW
  • 01 Apr 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
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Vineyard shot - Credit : Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers

Washington is the second largest wine-producing state in the United States. It is located in the Pacific Northwest of the country, bordering Canada. While Washington State’s northern latitude and maritime influences might not seem ideal for viticulture, the vast Columbia Valley is in fact one of America’s sunniest vineyard areas.

An Overview Of The Columbia Valley  

The Columbia Valley spans an impressive 8.75 million acres in the southeastern corner of Washington, covering a third of the state’s total landmass. It is Washington’s most significant viticultural area. Indeed, 99% of the state’s wine grapes (almost 24,000 ha) are grown here. The Columbia Valley also has the unique particularity of spanning two states. While most of the vineyards are in Washington, a small portion lie in Oregon.

The Cascade Range of mountains divides Washington from north to south, creating a rain shadow that protects the Columbia Valley from wet, marine weather patterns. The climate is therefore hot and semi-arid during the growing season. According to the Washington State Wine Commission, the Columbia Valley gets 16 hours of sunshine per day on average in the summer. These balmy conditions allow late-ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive.

A phenomenon known as the Missoula Floods (a series of colossal Ice Age floods) defines the varied, well-drained soils of the Columbia Valley. Wind blown sand and silt topsoils are common, overlying layers of gravel and slackwater sediment, with a basalt bedrock.

Digging Into Sub-Regional Diversity 

Given the Columbia Valley’s immense size, it is only natural that mesoclimate, altitude, orientation, and soil composition should differ from one area to another. It is for this reason that the region can successfully grow over 30 varieties of Vitis vinifera.

To distinguish the diverse vineyard areas, the Columbia Valley is sub-divided into ten American Viticultural Regions. Wines can be labelled with the broad Columbia Valley AVA or with the specific sub-AVA if all grapes originate from that area.

The three largest Columbia Valley AVAs are:

Yakima Valley 

This large growing area in south central Washington State has over 7,500 ha of vineyard planted. Its territory is so diverse that the three smaller AVAs of Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, and Rattlesnake Hills are subsumed within its borders. The climate is mainly arid and continental, with silt/loam-based soils. Cooler areas are planted predominantly to Chardonnay and Riesling, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are top red varieties on warmer sites. Due to the varied topography and climate nuances, styles vary from medium weight, tart fruit profiles to riper, more powerfully structured wines.

Horse Heaven Hills 

his wonderfully alliterative AVA took its name from the remark of an early pioneer who declared the lush, grassy pasture lands “horse heaven”. Just under 7,000 ha of vines are planted in this area to the south of the Yakima Valley. Altitudes range from just under 100m close to the Columbia River, climbing to over 500m in the marginally cooler, northern reaches. Red grape varieties account for some two-thirds of plantings, with heady black-fruited Cabernet Sauvignon and rich, velvety Merlot leading the way.

Wahluke Slope 

Wahluke Slope, which means “watering hole” in the Native American Wanapum language is a unique vineyard area. It is situated north of Yakima Valley in an isolated area bordered by the Columbia River, the Saddle Mountains, and the wildlife reserve, Hanford Reach National Monument. It is one of the Columbia Valley’s driest, sunniest AVAs, with vineyards planted on a south-facing, gentle slope. This is red wine country, where opulent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot share centre stage with bold, savoury Syrah wines.

Vineyard shot - Credit : Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers