Washington is the nation’s second largest wine producer (but it accounts for only one tenth the volume of California). Only one percent of Washington’s wine grapes grow west of the Cascades, although numerous wineries make their home in the Puget Sound area, maintaining their cellar doors at convenient day trip distance from the big population centers like Seattle and Tacoma. While the state has its share of estate wines, one of the key configurations in Washington wine is the separation of growers and winemakers. Many growers came to the grape from growing other fruits.
Washington’s major wine regions to the east of the Cascades get very little rain, making irrigation a necessity. The Columbia, Walla Walla, Snake and Yakima rivers provide the water. Because of the high latitude, summer ripening days are often two hours longer than in California. The aridity causes distinct diurnal temperature swings, favoring retention of grape acidity. The grapes get through the summer all right, but every few winters extreme frosts may damage the vines. Washington wine growers have developed numerous methods for dealing with this winter frost, including the use of wind turbines, but one of the best methods is to plant grapes that handle the winters better (Merlot loses in this scenario; Riesling wins). Much of the topsoil is sandy loam studded with basalt rock specks. The phylloxera louse does not like these conditions. The aridity also helps keep major vine diseases and pests in check. As a result, Washington is one of the few areas in the world where vinifera vines can grow on their own roots. This is well and good, given that grafting wounds on vines make them particularly sensitive to winter damage.
Washington viticulture is highly mechanized. Here, wine grapes coexist with a rich array of other fruits, particularly apples. Washington’s primary grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Syrah, but the growers experiment with many wines not seen elsewhere in America, examples being Lemberger (Blaufrankisch in Austria), and the Georgian white grape Rkatsiteli. Wines tend be fruit-forward with bright acidity and noticeable tannins.
The Columbia Valley AVA takes up nearly a quarter of the state (and also spills over into Oregon). With the exception of the Columbia Gorge AVA (shared with Oregon), the Lake Chelan AVA in the state’s north, and the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA in the state’s southeast (shared with Idaho), all the grape producing areas in eastern Washington fit within Columbia Valley. Sub-AVAs of Columbia Valley include the Ancient Lakes AVA, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, the Naches Heights AVA, the Wahluke Slope AVA, the Walla Walla Valley AVA, and the Yakima Valley AVA. Yakima in turn has its own trio of nested AVAs: the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, the Red Mountain AVA, and the Snipes Mountain AVA.
Much of the Columbia Valley’s geology and topography is the result of the Missoula Floods (also known as the Spokane Floods or the Bretz Floods) that occurred at the end of the last ice age. This flood (released from a glacial lake near Missoula, Montana) inundated a large area leaving silt and gravel beds. These sediments formed the soils of the region.
The Columbia Gorge is marketed as "a world of wine in 40 miles" because of the variety of climates, terrains, and grape varieties in such a small space, covering two states. Grapes (the list is large) include Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.
The Lake Chelan AVA encompasses the southern and eastern shores of Lake Chelan. The lake was formed by the scraping action of ice age glaciers. The soils the glaciers left are sandy and coarse, with notable amounts of quartz and mica. The lake modifies the climate, resulting in a longer growing season and a reduced risk of frost. Italian immigrants settled in the area and began to grow wine grapes before the turn of the 20th century, but instead of becoming a wine producer, the region made a name for itself with apples, pears, peaches and cherries. Around the turn of the 21st century, wine producers became attracted by the long growing season with sunny days and lake-cooled nights. The region now has 20 wineries producing Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.
The Ancient Lakes AVA gets its name from the remnants of the great Missoula flood. The flood scraped the top soils down to the basalt level and gouged out canyons called “coulees” among which many vineyards are planted today. The area sits in the eastern foothills of the Cascades, making the rain shadow of those mountains nearly complete the climate among the driest in the Columbia Valley. White grapes predominate: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.
The Horse Heaven Hills AVA borders the Yakima Valley AVA on the north and the Columbia River on the south. Elevations range from 200 feet in the south to 1,800 feet at the northern boundary. The appellation gets very little rainfall. Grapes are planted in the south-facing slopes of hills that bear the brunt of strong winds that come in from the west through the Columbia Gorge, reducing the threat of rot and fungal diseases and creating desirable vine stress that improves the concentration of the wines. The warmth of the Columbia River moderates the temperature. Washington’s largest winery, Columbia Crest, is located in the appellation. A fifth of all wine grapes in Washington are grown in Horse heaven Hills, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay.
The Naches Heights AVA is a dry plateau, west of the city of Yakima, ranging in elevation from 1200 to 2400 feet. Seven vineyards here plant red Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot), white Bordeaux varieties (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc), Rhône varieties (Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier), Italians (Barbera, Gewürztraminer, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Sagrantino and Pinot Grigio) and even Portuguese varieties (Souzao, Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Roriz.)
The Wahluke Slope AVA with 8500 vineyard acres accounts for 15% of state production. The area is isolated, warm, and very dry. The deep topsoil is largely windblown sand. Vineyards are arrayed on a broad, south-facing slope, with little variation in soil or climate among them.
The wines here are characterized by full body and prominent varietal character. Top grape varieties include Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.
The Walla Walla Valley AVA , which pokes into part of northern Oregon, is known for its iconic sweet onions, wheat production, and strawberries. Soils are good draining wind-deposited loess. During the growing season, dry Walla Walla enjoys hot days and dramatically cooler nights (because of the aridity). Wine growing began in the 19th century, declined with killing winter frosts and, of course, Prohibition, and saw a rebirth in the 1970s. Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 41% of plantings, Merlot 26%, Syrah 16%, with Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, and Viognier among a score of other varieties.
The Yakima Valley AVA has the distinction of being the first AVA in Washington State (1983). With a thousand acres of vineyards, Yakima has the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in the state, accounting for 40% of the state’s wine. The most widely planted wine grapes are Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, and Syrah. Nearly 40% of Washington State’s yearly wine production is made from Yakima Valley grapes. Yakima also produces prodigious quantities of apples, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums, as well as 80% of the hops grown in the United States. Yakima has three nested AVAs:
Lewis-Clark Valley has high temperatures compared to the regions that surround it. The AVA is mostly in Idaho, near the city of Lewiston. When it approved the AVA, the TTB adjusted the border of the Columbia Valley AVA to avoid any overlap. This is appropriate, since unlike the flood-affected Columbia Valley, the Lewis-Clark Valley was created when tectonic forces pushed up mountains, and the Clearwater and Snake rivers cut into those mountains. Climate in the warmest pockets of the appellation can support late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The appellation also has cooler zones where Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot do well.
The Challenge of the “Other 47” States
For reasons involving Pacific Ocean currents, the configuration of mountain chains, volcanic activity and even the Great Missoula Flood, the western edge of the North American continent, (including the American states of California, Oregon and Washington, the Canadian province of British Columbia, and the Mexican state of Baja California), is well suited to the growing and vinification of vinifera grapes. In the vast center of the continent, viticulture is challenged by great extremes of temperature in both summer and winter. In the southeastern quarter of the United States, tropical humidity is the great stumbling block to vinifera cultivation. The northeast (where this writer lives) suffers from a double whammy: miserable humidity coming up from the south and vine-killing winter chill sweeping down from the arctic. For many years, once California punched its way to the top of the American vinous world, growers in the “rest” of the country attempted to produce wines from the same international grapes the Californians were planting, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay above all. Viticulture might fail entirely because of climate induced disease, and when it did succeed, the resulting wines lacked the vivacity and vitality of their California models. Wise winemakers eventually faced the music and started to concentrate on grapes that were appropriate for their climates and environments. These grapes were either French-American hybrids or select vinifera varieties that better fit the climate.
Let us re-cap here the difference. North American fully non-vinifera grapes do not make the kinds of wines most of us like to drink. A species like Vitis labrusca, which includes the Concord grape so well enjoyed for eating out of hand, grape juice, and grape jelly, when made into wine, has a ”foxy” taste reminiscent of wild strawberries that have been wrapped in wet fur. The Concord is well suited, however, to environments which are downright cold (and it also resists phylloxera). Attempts to beat phylloxera by crossing vinifera grapes with non-vinifera grapes failed (root grafting succeeded), but in the process a number of French-American hybrid grapes were created that did well in the cold harsh climates of the upper Midwest, New York State, Ontario, and even China and Japan. Baco Noir, Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Seyval Blanc are just a few of these excellent grapes. The wines they produce can be absolutely delightful, without a trace of foxiness, they just have an image problem (like any grape that doesn’t fit into the pantheon of “international” varieties).
All of these grapes, even the vinifera varieties, show some form of cold hardiness.
New York is a geologically and topographically diverse state, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Great Lakes. The Allegheny River in western New York State is actually part of the Mississippi River Valley. New York has big cities (and one giant one), vast suburban areas, and yet significant wilderness and agricultural areas. The state’s six wine regions, all designated AVAs, each have nothing in common with the other five except or the fact that each has a name that refers to a body of water (which in all cases, tends to modify the climate).
The Lake Erie AVA runs along the lake split among western New York, northern Pennsylvania, and northeastern Ohio. The Concord grape predominates here with most of production going into juice, jelly, eating grapes and low-quality sweetened wine. Some growers are starting to experiment with vinifera plantings.
The Niagara Escarpment AVA in western New York has a similar environment to the vineyard areas on the Ontario side of the international border. Twenty wineries make up the Niagara Wine Trail producing Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling as well as a variety of fruit wines. Viticulture in this cool climate would not be possible without the moderating effect of Lakes Erie and Ontario.
With 11,000 acres under vine, the Finger Lakes AVA is New York’s largest. Even more so than around the Great Lakes, this interior region would be far too cold for vines without the heat-absorbing and radiating qualities of these eleven narrow glacial lakes. Most vineyards are clustered around the sloping shores of Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga lakes. Seneca and Cayuga each qualify as sub-AVAs. More than 120 wineries inhabit this well-developed resort area, many specializing in selling to tourists. Riesling is the leader, with Pinot Noir and some French-American hybrids.
The Finger Lakes has an important place in American wine history as a result of the experiments of Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant, at the Cornell University Geneva Experiment station in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Frank proved that appropriate vinifera grapes could withstand the cold winter if they could be grafted onto the right native vine roots. In the case of the Finger Lakes, that grape is Riesling. Riesling handles winter frost well. That said, nothing could stop the vine-killing 2014 freeze, caused by a “polar vortex.” Riesling vines died, and the federal government declared nineteen of New York’s counties disaster areas.
New York’s newest delimited wine region is the Champlain Valley of New York AVA, approved in September 2016, in the state’s extreme northeast. In this cold but tourist-rich region, hardy hybrid grapes run the show: Marquette, Frontenac, and Leon Millot among reds; La Crescent, Seyval Blanc, Brianna, Chardonnel (a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc), and St. Pépin among whites.
The Hudson River Region AVA edges to within day commuting distance of New York City. Most vineyards are situated on the west side of the Hudson, often overlooking the river. The region has the distinction of having the oldest continuously operated winery in the United States: Brotherhood, founded in 1839. The French hybrid Seyval Blanc shares honors with Chardonnay and Riesling for the most popular grape. Millbrook Vineyards and Winery, well inland on the east side of the river, has long been an innovative maker of cool-climate vinifera wines, both red (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot) and white (Chardonnay, Riesling and Tocai Friulano). It is perhaps telling that Millbrook, which does a brisk tasting room business, rounds out its offerings with a Cabernet Sauvignon from San Benito County, California rather than trying to coax that demanding grape to ripen in Dutchess County, New York.
The growing season for the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie AVAs is about 200 days, the Hudson River Region’s is only 190 days, but the vineyards at the eastern extreme of Long Island enjoy about 230 days a year of growing time. The important wine regions are the outstretched twin forks of Long Island constituting the North Fork of Long Island AVA and the Hamptons, Long Island AVA. A larger Long Island AVA, covering Nassau and Suffolk Counties, was created later to protect the Long Island brand. In this case, the sub-AVAs existed before the regional AVA. Vineyards here benefit from the warming influence of three bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Long Island Sound to the north, and Peconic Bay between the north and south forks. The Hamptons tends to be cooler and wetter than the North Fork. Long Island winemakers are doing well with Cabernet Franc and Merlot (which benefit from those extra weeks of growing season). Chardonnay and Riesling also do well, but the energetic growers of this tourist-friendly region are trying their hands at dozens of other vinifera grape varieties.
Ranking the American states as wine producers leads the researcher to contradictory sets of data (except that all data criteria put California as number one). You are forced to choose a list that seems most useful. The danger is that you might chose a ranking list skewed toward those states that have the best public relations departments. With that disclaimer, this writer chooses to rely on data from the National Association of American Wineries and their ranking of the states based on number of wineries (rather than vineyard acreage or volume of wine sold). The top five by this criterion are: California, Washington, Oregon, New York, and Virginia. (California has more wineries than the other 49 states combined.) These are also the states covered in detail in the World Atlas of Wine. Texas is nearly tied with Virginia on the NAAW list, and exceeds it on some other lists, so we will also cover that state.
We have already discussed Virginia in this course in our discussion of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s failed efforts to grow vinifera grapes on his estate at Monticello. Tom’s problem, though he did not know it at the time, was the phylloxera louse. Even without phylloxera, the region’s endemic humidity would have promoted fungal issues that would have worn Jefferson out. To be precise, these issues would have worn Jefferson’s slaves out, but that is material for another course. The same Monticello vineyards are producing vinifera grapes now thanks to rootstock grafting and judicious grape selection. The Monticello AVA is one of seven in Virginia. The Commonwealth’s top five varietals are Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Vidal Blanc (a French-American hybrid), and Viognier. Viognier has open clusters that allow air to circulate among and between the grapes, helping to avoid fungal infection caused by the humidity. Chardonnay still leads in production, but Viognier is now promoted as Virginia’s signature grape.
It is worth remarking here that Virginia’s official state motto is sic semper tyrannus, Latin for “Tyrants always get the ignominy they so richly deserve.” In 1969, Virginia decided that “Virginia is for Lovers” made better PR. The phrase (which pre-dated “I – heart – New York”) is still in use. So if Viognier is now the state’s signature grape, so be it. The word Viognier even looks like Virginia. Cabernet Franc is touted as Virginia’s signature red.
The Middleburg AVA is Virginia’s newest, in the Piedmont region of the north, abutting the Potomac River, 50 miles west of Washington, DC. Soil is granite-based clay. Boxwood, one of the leading producers, produces red wine only from the Bordeaux grapes of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Other Middleburg wineries produce Viognier, Chardonnay, Riesling, and some are experimenting with Nebbiolo, which is extraordinarily difficult to propagate outside of its home in Italy’s Piemonte.
The vineyards of the North Fork of Roanoke AVA sit between 1,200 feet and 2,200 feet in elevation on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains. The elevation makes this a cool-clime region despite its latitude. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Viognier, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Malbec are among the grapes produced.
The Rocky Knob AVA in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia is small, with elevations reaching from 1600 feet to 3600 feet. Soils are a mixture of gravel and silt loam. Strong winds in this mountainous area protect the vines from fungus and excess humidity. No wine is being produced under this appellation at present.
The Shenandoah Valley AVA is large, and spills over into the West Virginia panhandle at its northern end. The valley is flanked by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains on the west. Growing season is warm, and the ridges act as a rain shadow, keeping the appellation dry. Wineries here produce a combination of vinifera varietals, French-American hybrids and a some wines from the Norton grape, a native American variety that is free of that “foxy” quality.
The Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA comprises a peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers in the Tidewater region of Virginia. The tip of the AVA juts into Chesapeake Bay. Production is split between vinifera grapes (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay), and French-American hybrids (Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc).
The Virginia's Eastern Shore AVA lies near sea-level on the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. The soil is sandy and deep, the weather mild because of ocean and bay influence. Here, Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek grows Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Texas is a mighty big state, so keep in mind that the regions on the AVA map above are bigger than they look.
The Texas Hill Country AVA in central Texas is the nation’s second largest AVA. (The Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA, which covers parts of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, is the largest, but doesn’t produce much in the way of wine.) Only a small portion of the region, about a thousand acres, is planted to quite a wide variety of vines, including the Cabernets, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Tannat, Barbera, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay. Texas Hill Country has two small sub-AVAs. The Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country AVA is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The Bell Mountain AVA produces Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Colombard.
The vineyards of the Texas High Plains AVA stand on flat terrain at elevations between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level between the city of Lubbock and the New Mexico line. The elevation and aridity result in lower temperatures at night. The tierra roja soil is composed of sandy loam over limestone. This is a dry region, but it sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches into eight states. High winds virtually strip the vines of pests and disease. This desolate region is more of a growing area than a winemaking one, although it contains at least six wineries. All the conditions here are right for this region to become a top quality source for fine wine grapes. Growers already ship their grapes far and wide. Cabernet ripens nicely in these conditions, but you will also find Italians like Aglianico, Barbera, Montepulciano, and Sangiovese and the Rhône grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and Vio