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Washington's Nine AVA's, or Appellations 

 

Washington is unique as a wine producing region, not only because it has more than one wine region, but because the regions are so different from each other.  Both ripen different types of grapes.

 

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau may designate a region with unique soil, climate, and growing conditions an American Viticultural Area (A.V.A.), also commonly known as an “appellation”.  Different appellations are known for different wines, and the appellation is often mentioned on a wine’s label (if they do this, 85% of the grapes used to make the wine in the bottle must be grown in that appellation).

 

“Appellation” is a word of French origin which refers to a specific geographic area that produces wine with distinctive characteristics.  This meaning is intertwined with that of terroir, another French term which refers to the concept that soil, geology, climate, and other factors affect wine.  Essentially, terroir is the sum total of conditions that are not able to be changed or modified by the winemaker.  American wines tend to emphasize varietal characteristics over geographical ones – in other words, a wine is more likely to be described and understood by the grape variety rather than where it was grown.

 

An A.V.A. designation is a standard of identity, but does not regulate quality.  Washington A.V.A.’s vary in size, and can even cross state borders.  The Columbia Valley A.V.A. is the largest, covering 11 million acres (almost 1/4 of the state’s land mass) and extending into Oregon.  About 98% of the state’s wine grapes are produced within the Columbia Valley.  The Puget Sound A.V.A., west of the Cascade mountains, has only about 70 acres of grapes under cultivation and produces less than 2% of the state’s wine grapes, although many wineries and tasting rooms are located on this side of the mountains.

Currently, Washington has nine federally recognized A.V.A.s: 

  • The Yakima Valley was the first A.V.A. designated in Washington in 1983, and is thought of as the heart of Washington’s wine country.  Interestingly, the city of Yakima itself isn’t actually within the Yakima Valley A.V.A.  The Valley has the greatest concentration of vineyards in the state, with more than 11,000 acres under cultivation.   
  • The Walla Walla Valley A.V.A. was established in 1984 and is a very prestigious wine making region.  Its ideal growing conditions made it an important area in Washington’s early wine making period, and it continues to be important today.  Many of the state’s most distinguished small wineries are located here.  This A.V.A. extends into Oregon.
  • The Columbia Valley A.V.A., also recognized in 1984, is a sort of “umbrella” appellation.  It covers almost one quarter of the land area of the state, and includes several other appellations within its borders (Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Columbia Gorge).
  • Red Mountain, designated in 2001, is the smallest A.V.A, with only about 4000 acres in total land area, and 600 acres of grapes under cultivation.  It’s not really a mountain, but rather a prominent hill near the Tri Cities, around which the Yakima River makes a big loop.  Red Mountain has excellent weather conditions for growing wine, and the nearby river moderates the climate.  The “mountain’s” southwest facing slope gives it warmer temperatures and a more hours of sunlight than any other location in the Yakima Valley.  Grapes from Red Mountain are in high demand, and some of Washington’s best wines are made from grapes grown in this A.V.A. 
  • The Puget Sound A.V.A., Washington’s only A.V.A. west of the Cascade mountain range, stretches from south of Olympia to the Canadian border.  It was established in 1995, and has about 60 acres of vinifera grapes under cultivation.  Growing conditions here vary greatly from those in eastern Washington.  While many of the state’s largest wineries have production facilities, tasting rooms, and offices here, most of them use grapes grown in the eastern areas of the state.  Very few wineries produce wine solely from grapes grown in Western Washington. 
  • The Columbia Gorge A.V.A. was designated in 2004 and, like the Walla Walla A.V.A., includes land in Washington and Oregon.  It is also small, like the Red Mountain A.V.A., with 4,432 acres in total, and 300 acres of vinifera grapes.  Because of its location right on the Columbia River, its climate is moderated by the cool ocean air flowing up the gorge. 
  • Horse Heaven Hills – Designated in 2005, this A.V.A. is bound by the Yakima River to the north and the Columbia River to the south.  The region covers 570,000 acres, and some of the state’s largest wine producers grow grapes here. 
  • The Wahluke Slope – Established in 2006, the Wahluke slope (meaning “watering place” in native language) is a south facing slope near the Saddle Mountains in south eastern Washington.  It is 81,000 acres and has just over 5,000 acres under cultivation for wine grapes. 
  • Rattlesnake Hills – Also established in 2006, right after the Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills is the state’s newest A.V.A.  It covers 68,500 acres, with 1,500 acres growing wine grapes.  The region is on the northern edge of the Yakima River Valley. 
 

Other winemaking regions of note in Washington include the Spokane area (near the Idaho border), Canoe Ridge, Zephyr Ridge, the Wallula area, Alder Ridge, Cold Creek, and the Columbia basin/Snake River area.

 

Washington is now recognized internationally as a wine region, but even so, it is still in the early states of growth compared to other wine regions globally.   

 
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