Washington Wine: The Shaping of a Region

Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, North Bend, WA

March is Taste Washington Wine month and to celebrate I will be sharing some history about the Washington Wine industry and along with highlights of some local Washington Wineries, a deep dive into Washington’s AVAs and more to help you can become a Washington Wine Expert. In preparation for the month-long event and corresponding blog posts, first I want to start with a quick overview from the ground up on how climate, geology and geography helped shape Washington Wine Country region.

Panoramic Views of Washington and the Columbia River Gorge from Rowena Crest Viewpoint on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Maryhill Winery

Washington State is a region that is defined by its geology. It’s landscapes have been forged by volcanoes, creased by faults and sculpted by ice and water. The rugged mountain pikes, varied forests, canyons, rivers, rolling grasslands and fertile farmland give glimpses of this magnificent land’s dynamic contrasts. As you travel through the state of Washington you will not only experience a variety of landscapes but varied ecosystems, and a collage of macro and micro climates as well. The distinct geographic regions and geological formations that make the “Evergreen State” unique can all be experienced as you make your way from the Pacific Ocean beaches of Western Washington through the dense evergreen forests, through high mountain passes, to the plateaus and dry hills of Eastern Washington.

The dividing factor of the Cascade Mountain Range.

It is not unusual to have such diverse climate differences in a state but there is a giant reason for the difference in climate between Western and Eastern Washington, The Cascade Mountain Range.

The Cascade Mountain Range originates in southern British Columbia and stretches through Oregon into Northern California. Mountains in the Cascades average 6,000 feet in height and the range includes 5 volcanoes in Washington state: Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens.

The Cascades are a natural barrier between the wetter, and mild maritime climate of Western Washington and the mostly high country desert of Eastern Washington that has hot summers and cold winters.

Eastern Washington is scattered with a myriad of microclimates from the effects of the Cascade Mountain’s rain shadow. The tremendous influence of this rain shadow means that Eastern Washington has an average of 300 days of sunshine each year.

Now that we have a better understanding of the climate that helps shape the wine region in Eastern Washington we can take a look at other factors that make this region ideal for growing wine grapes.

The Geological Influences on the Terroir of Eastern Washington
Eastern Washington Wine County

To better understand some of the geological history that makes up the distinct landscape of Eastern Washington it is best to start with a quick review of the Missoula Floods that occurred in this area at the end of the last Ice Age. This series of events was brought on by the breaking of the ice dam which was holding back the 2000-foot-deep glacial Lake Missoula located in what is now Montana. This fast-moving volume of water rushed through the Columbia Valley with a flooding depth up to 500 feet high. It is called a series of events because this occurred multiple times over thousands of years at the end of the last Ice Age. These massive floodwaters brought with them a mixture of gravel, silt and sand along with great granite boulders that blanketed the basalt rock base of Eastern Washington. The deposits left by the Missoula Flood are deep, well-draining and relatively low in nutrients, the perfect terroir for growing grapes. The Flood in essence laid the foundation for the soils that make up Eastern Washington’s unique terroir. In addition to the floods, windblown loess, similar to what is found in the wine regions of Austria, accumulated on top of the flood deposits, especially at higher elevations above the flood water levels.

Glacial Lake Missoula and pathway of the floods. Map from Digital Geology of Idaho

One of the best ways to learn more about the Missoula Floods and it’s affect on the Eastern Washington area known as the ‘Scablands’ is by reading, Folds, Floods, and Fine Wine: Geologic Influences on the Terroir of the Columbia Basin by Professor of Geology, Kevin R. Pogue.

Geography rounds out the natural contributions to the wide array of grape varietals which are grown in Washington’s wine growing regions. Specifically latitude and the altitudes in some of the vineyards.

Latitude is used together with longitude to specify the precise location of features on the surface of the Earth and Eastern Washington grape growing region sits at a latitude of 46˚ N which is the same latitude of Bordeaux, France. Also, at this latitude, the growing season sees an average of 17 hours of sunlight, which is 2 hours more than Napa. With this abundance of daylight the region is able to fully ripen a diverse range of varietals.

In addition to the long growing season the region also experiences large diurnal temperatures which result in warm days and cool nights. The added benefit of these large diurnal temperatures is an extension of hang-time, time to build exceptional structure, and preserving the grapes natural acidity. In the winter the cold temperatures also allow for deep vine dormancy which minimizes diseases and pests in the vineyard.

Vineyards surrounding Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, WA

Within Washington’s wine growing regions, elevation plays a critical role in both vine health and wine style. Many of the Columbia Valley’s vineyards are planted along a broad, semi-arid plateau at altitudes of 200-2,000 feet. Many vineyards in Washington currently rest between 1400–1675 feet of elevation and for classification purposes typically any site above 1200 feet qualifies as high elevation. Thriving throughout these various elevations is more than 80 wine grape varieties, with a planting of 59% red and 41% white. The red and white grapes grown in Washington are as diverse as the landscape that they are planted on. Varieties cover the range of the alphabet from Agliancio to Zinfandel, along with important plantings such as Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Cabernet Franc. Although, Washington’s most widely planted grape is Chardonnay, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on the rise is Riesling and Syrah.

Rocky Pond Estate Winery’s CheValle Vineyard, Lake Chelan, WA. You can learn more about this Washington Wine region in my previous post, Autumn in Lake Chelan.

Washington State is home to a diverse collection of world-class vineyard areas, and these vineyards can be found in the boundaries of sixteen unique American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) all across the state. Each distinctive AVA possesses an individual combination of climate, topography and soils that shapes and defines the aromas and flavors of grown grapes and the wines crafted from them. I hope that you will join me during the month of March as I take a closer look at the two of the state’s newest AVAs, share information about Washington Wine History and highlight Washington Wineries.

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

5 Comments on “Washington Wine: The Shaping of a Region

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