This post wraps up the month long celebration of Taste Washington Wine Month. Hopefully you have learned something new about Washington wines and are on your way to becoming a Washington Wine Expert.
The Royal Slope AVA, located in east-central Washington almost halfway between Seattle and Spokane, may be less than a year old since being approved on September 2, 2020 but it has already proven its fortitude. Unlike some newly approved growing regions that are in early stages of viticultural exploration, Royal Slope has been growing grapes since 1984. Let’s take a closer look at this area and see what made it earn the title of the 15th AVA in Washington.
Often it is a long and expensive process to achieve AVA status. The process for filing and achieving approval from The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for the Royal Slope AVA took 4-5 years. There are always a number of factors that must be qualified before approval, including the historical context of the area, it’s particular climate, the soil significance in the region and the final unique qualities of the wine. For this reason hiring a licensed geologist is usually the first step in the process and in this case Dr. Alan Busacca took on the task of providing the required evidence that warranted this new Washington AVA.
Historically the Royal Slope name has been used since at least the 1950s and the name is believed to have originated from a climb that two Scotsman took of the Saddle Mountains and their statement regarding the slope’s “Majestic Quality”. Located in both Grant County and Adams County the AVA includes the town of Royal City, which was founded in 1956, and the area surrounding which was sometimes referred to as Royal Flats by the early pioneers.
The south-canted topography of the area is perfect for farming and it is home to a substantial amount of tree fruit acreage as well as row crops to include apples, cherries, peaches, timothy and alfalfa hay, melons, potatoes, onions, wine grapes, pears, mint and corn.
The AVAs growing region is wholly contained within the Columbia Valley AVA and like the Columbia Valley AVA, Royal Slope is underlain with Miocene-era basaltic bedrock, the affect of the Ice Age mega floods. During this the floodwaters entered the region in a relatively smooth fashion and the area of the AVA was largely above the floodwaters so there was no heavy erosion.
This particular AVA is kind of like an island geographically, it is surrounded on all four sides by very different lands, To the north are the flatlands and sand dunes of the Quincy Valley, to the east and south is the desert, uncultivable “badlands,” and heading west are the bedrock cliffs that run into the Columbia River.
Much of the Royal Slope is comprised of a south-facing slope, which is part of the Yakima Fold Belt that comprises a number of Washington’s grape growing regions. The AVA area has about 90% gently to somewhat steeply south-facing slopes, highly regarded for wine grapes in the Pacific Northwest because of the northerly latitude.
This gentle hilly landscaped AVA ‘island’ is ideal for cultivation because of its deep soils. Combining with the bedrock basalt to make the soil of the Royal Slope unique is the addition of very fine sandy loam and silt. The area of the AVA is large enough that the variation in soils, slopes and aspect allows for a wide range of grape varieties to be matched to specific sites and soils.
One of the key differentiators of the Royal Slope is elevations, they range from 610 feet above sea level in the southeast corner to 1,756 feet at the top of the Frenchmen Hills ridge. Frenchmen Hills is a 30-mile long east-west trending ridge with a gentle to medium-steep south-facing slope that is considerably higher than surrounding growing regions.
The Royal Slope area has an average vineyard elevation of approximately 1300 feet, this elevation leads to cooler night time temperatures and slightly lower day time temperatures than some of the lower, warmer surrounding areas. Planting at these higher elevations not only extends the growing season, delays ripening, and helps retain natural acidity, the grapes at harvest have exceptional fruit character and quality. This combination of natural acidity, ripe fruit, and very well integrated tannins have become the hallmark of the Royal Slope AVA.
Getting all of the heat benefits similar to the Red Mountain AVA, Royal Slopes has the advantage of three weeks longer hangtime because of the regions very cool nights. Since precipitation in the Royal Slope is only 6-8 inches annually the grapevines need regular irrigation in order to grow in these conditions.
The diurnal swing (difference between night and daytime temperature) allows for about 22 different varieties to be cultivated and vineyards located in Royal Slope annually score the highest ratings of all the AVAs of Washington State.
An example of this achievement from Stoneridge Vineyard, is the Charles Smith 2006 Royal City which was Washington State’s first ever 100-point Syrah awarded by Wine Enthusiast. Some of the over 20 different varieties planted within the appellation include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Syrah.
White grapes are also planted in the Royal Slope AVA, they include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Viognier.
The Royal Slope AVA is 156,389 acres, of which 1,900 acres are currently planted to wine grapes and there are 13 commercial vineyards and two wineries located within Royal Slope, Foxy Roxy Wines and Burke Vineyard.
The addition of Royal Slope to the list of official Washington State AVAs was was welcome news to wine grape growers Josh and Lisa Lawrence, Owners of Lawrence Vineyards located in the appellation. The Lawrence family who planted their flagship Corfu Crossing Vineyard in 2003 has been farming for over five decades in this agriculturally rich area. Josh currently oversees about 450 acres of vineyards within Royal Slope including their Scarline, La Reyna Blanca, Laura Lee, Solaksen, Thunderstone, Stoneridge and Boneyard Vineyards.
Along with selling premium wine grapes to vintners across the state, the Lawrence family also operates an estate winery, Gård Vintners which was established in 2006 and is located in Walla Walla. Now Gård Vintners who produces wines based 100% from Royal Slope and a multitude of other wineries may add the Royal Slope AVA designation to their wine labels.
A great way to experience for yourself some of the wines that feature grapes harvested from the Royal Slope AVA is to try the Collection Series from Gård featuring 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from three Lawrence Vineyards sites: Laura Lee, Corfu Crossing and Scarline. The Gård Vintners’ Collection Series showcases the unique characteristics of these three specific estate vineyard sites on the Royal Slope. The diversity of each location delivers a high level of uniqueness and complexity to the wines produced by Gård.
The 2016 Corfu Crossing Cabernet Sauvignon: This engaging Washington Cabernet opens with aromas of a blackberry & blueberry pie with combined with swirls of licorice and spice, topped with smoky vanilla and plum ice cream. A wonderful visual picture just from the aromas. With time in the glass the wines flavors open up and the plum flavor becomes more pronounced. Add in the intriguing notes of dried herbs and orange zest and the full picture of this unique style of this Cabernet becomes even clearer.
A lovely easy drinking Cabernet Sauvignon that has a generous mouthfeel with an air-kiss of sweetness and a savory oaky long finish.
You can read more about Gård Vintners and an interview that I had with Lisa Lawrence on my previous post Washington Wine Gift Ideas for the Holidays.
In 2012 Napa vintner Dennis Cakebread (of Napa Valley’s famed Cakebread Cellars) set out to make a singular Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wine that encompassed both the deep history and terroir of the Northwest. Finding camaraderie in the Walla Walla community and being drawn to the high-quality wines of the area, Dennis knew his next project would be in Washington, especially in the newly founded Royal Slope AVA region. Mullan Road Cellars is the result of this newest endeavor.
Premium producers such as Mullan Road Cellars that use 90% of their grapes from this AVA will now be able to change their labels from reading Columbia Valley to Royal Slope AVA.
Solacksen Vineyard and Stillwater Creek Vineyards two of the established vineyards in the Royal Slope AVA have terroir that is ideal for growing all Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the grapes blended into Mullan Road Cellars’ red wine.
Mullan Road Cellars 2015 Red Blend Wine: A blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, and 17% Cabernet Franc and aged 18 months in 34% new French and American oak barrels this Washington Cabernet is decadent and tantalizing. Brimming with loads of sweet black and red fruit aromas mingled with chocolate, baking spice and hints of dill you also get a deeper scent of cassis as the wine opens up. This full-bodied gem has silky tannins that give it an elevated elegance. Deeply layered with a wonderful concentration of the aroma flavors carrying over and the addition of plums and smoked embers. Refined and Precise this Cabernet gets sexier with each sip.
Protecting a wine’s origin within an established AVA according to the federal appellation labeling rules assure consumers that when they buy an appellation-designated wine, they are buying a product wherein both the grape source and the place of production are closely tied to the named place. Also, an AVA recognition allows vineyard owners and wineries to distinguish themselves by showcasing the characteristics, quality or reputation of their grapes. Equally important an AVA listed on a label gives consumers a better idea of what a wine is going to taste like and allows comparison to other wines made from the same area.
“If certain information about a wine is included on the label, an appellation of origin is required. An American viticultural area (AVA) is a type of appellation specific to grape wine. It is a defined grape-growing region having a name, distinguishing features, and a delineated boundary.” From the TTB Website.
How Washington wines are labeled: In Washington if the label states “Washington” and the name of an American Viticultural Area (AVA) located wholly within Washington, at least 95% of the grapes used in the production of the wine must have been grown in Washington. The same grape percentage is also required if the label states “Washington” only or if the label states “Washington” and the name of an AVA located in both Washington and an adjoining state.
Although Taste Washington Wine Month is coming to an end there are still 14 more Washington AVAs to explore this year.
It was over 200 years ago that pioneering explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark traversed the spectacular terrain of Washington State. The same expansive vistas and scenic landscapes that captivated Lewis and Clark still remain but explorers of Washington state today have the opportunity to discover something that they did not witness; Washington’s dynamic wine regions. The Next Washington AVA post will take us to the appellation named after these two daring explorers, The Lewis and Clark Valley AVA. This AVA overlaps into the states of Idaho and Washington, it covers portions of Nez Perce, three counties in northern Idaho and three Counties in southeastern Washington. I look forward to sharing more about the AVAs geography, history and wineries with you.
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