Atop the Pacific Northwest, Washington State has a rich history of growing wine grapes dating back to 1825. Many of the original grapes were mainly American native varieties or hybrids planted along the Puget Sound between Seattle and Olympia, and the more isolated Walla Walla Valley in the southeast part of the state. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first wave of the modern-day winemaking pioneers began putting more emphasis on planting popular varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
The largest region is the Columbia Valley, which is located east of the Cascade Mountains. With dry, high desert conditions, the region averages less than ten inches of rainfall per year. Because of this, the critical water supply for the vineyards is generated by the melting snow caps from the mountains.
Within the borders of the Columbia Valley are a number of sub-appellations: Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Rattlesnake Hills, Snipes Mountain, Lake Chelan, Naches Heights, and Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley. Together, the region represents 99% of the premium vineyards planted in Washington.
The much smaller region is the Puget Sound, a much cooler and wetter region that specializes in more unique varieties like Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe and Muller Thurgau, as well as promising newer plantings of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
With nearly 50,000 acres of vineyards planted, Washington now ranks second in the United States for premium wine production. It’s a huge growth from only 17,100 acres planted in 1997. As a result, there are now over 800 wineries based in the state and the delicious wines are sold to 40 countries around the globe.
Whites: Washington’s most popular white grape variety is Riesling, which is used to make dry, off-dry and dessert-style wines, with grapes grown in the cooler coastal and high-elevation areas of the state. Another important variety is Chardonnay, which currently represents nearly 8,000 acres planted in the state. Other white varieties include: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Roussanne, Chenin Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe, Muller Thurgau, Orange Muscat, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Ottonel, Aligote.
Reds: The three most dominant red grapes planted in the state are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Representing nearly 40% of the vines planted in the state, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes which are commonly bottled separately or blended together with other Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec) to create rich, elegant and complex full-bodied wines. Other impressive wines from the state are made with Syrah and other Rhone varietals such as Grenache, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah. On a smaller-scale, other intriguing red varieties to look for include: Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinot Noir and Lemberger (Blue Franc).
White Wines: Grown in the cool-climate conditions of Washington State, Riesling is known for its expressive aromas and lively flavors of apricot, peach and ripe apple. Instead of being rich, buttery and oaky, the Chardonnays tend to be more crisp and delicate with lively flavors of apple, citrus, and tropical notes. Pinot Gris is more elegant with fresh fruity flavors, bright acidity, and dry finish. Gewürztraminer is aromatic, spicy, and savory. And Rhone-style varieties of Viognier and Roussanne feature floral aromas and flavors of ripe guava, mango, apricot and fresh stone fruits.
Red Wines: Currently there are more than 10,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon spread throughout Columbia Valley. The boldest wines are made with hillside fruit and feature deep aromas and flavors of dark cherry, blackberry, black currant, dark chocolate, wild herbs, and chewy tannins. The Merlots are also full-bodied with powerful fruit flavors of berries, cherries, milk chocolate and toffee, high acidity, firm structure, and soft tannins. Syrah and other Rhone varieties are often highlighted with notes of red and black currants, ripe blueberry, blackberry, boysenberry, seasoned meats, leather, and tobacco.
Like California and Oregon, Washington cuisine offers a cornucopia of flavors to pair with the premium wines made within the borders of the state. For white wines, think seasonal soups; steamed artichokes served with citrus-based aioli sauce; specialty salads made with kale or arugala; fresh scallop with fruit salsa; pan-seared white fish with a squeeze of lemon; and herb roasted chicken with parsnip puree. For reds, think big and delicious flavors of juicy burgers with grilled Walla Walla onions; fattier white fish with roasted potatoes; espresso dusted Ahi Tuna; slow-roasted pork, squab or lamb; wild mushroom risotto; seasonal stews; rack of lamb; Turducken for the holidays; and bold cheeses.