After a four-year pandemic hiatus, the Taste Washington event kicked off its 23rd year in Seattle, and we were all thrilled about the return! Taste Washington is the largest single-region wine and food festival in the United States. It is a multi-day celebration of local wine and food, including special dinners, parties, wine tasting, and some excellent seminars, leading up to the Grand Tasting of over 250 wineries over the weekend of March 11th - 12th.
There were six wine seminars and associated tastings, and I had to select which to attend and write about. I wish I could have heard all six! I decided to participate in “Where The Future Begins: Introducing Washington’s Newly Minted Regions.” The fascinating part about this is that Washington added six new AVAs over the last several years (American Viticulture Areas.) Thus, it grew from 14 to now 20.
The moderator was Sean Sullivan of Northwest Wine Report, whose expertise spans over 18 years of writing and reviewing wines from the Pacific Northwest. He has received awards for his blog and written for national wine magazines.
Sean briefly chatted about the six new AVAs and highlighted some unique features, including vital geologic features, the soil, and the mineral structure that make each AVA unique.
After describing each AVA, Sean introduced some of the panelists whose vineyards are in the respective AVAs. We also had the pleasure of tasting wine from each of the AVAs. All delicious!
Being a meteorologist, I was very interested in the discussion regarding weather aspects of the AVAs, and I will briefly highlight these. I will also discuss some other important weather data.
Valley Floor vs Toward the Ridgetops
Many of the new AVAs have vineyard plantings toward the ridgetops, which are above the valley floor. What is the advantage of this? The advantage is that during cool mornings in the spring and fall, it is warmer higher up as the cold air settles lower down toward the valley floor. Thus, the valley floor can be much colder than the areas above the valley floor. The net result is that frost issues can be minimized away from the valley floor. During the critical bud break, less frost in the spring is a great advantage. During the fall harvest, the frost issues occur later, giving many of these new AVAs a longer growing season, sometimes 45 days longer than the cooler locations. A longer growing season is beneficial for fruit development.
Royal Slope tops at 1,756 feet, and although new AVA plantings go back to 1984, the area has a proven track record and has produced some excellent Syrah’s. One interesting note is this AVA has fewer days over 95 degrees F than the warmer Red Mountain AVA. This is advantageous since grapevines tend to shut down when temperatures get over 95 degrees.
White Bluffs rises to 1,000 feet and, like the Royal Slope AVA, has an excellent track record. Some vines were planted here in 1972, and there are strong indications that these vines never had frost. This AVA produces such superior grapes that nearly one out of ten Washington wineries sources their fruit from here.
The Burn of Columbia Valley
The Burn of Columbia Valley most likely gets its name from legends of early settlers setting fire to the land in the fall to replenish and rejuvenate the soil for spring planting.
What weather features make it unique? The soil is high in organic matter and thus can retain more water than other parts of the Columbia Basin. Also, this AVA has slightly more rainfall than some of the other areas in the Columbia Basin. Higher rainfall is always a good thing in an arid environment.
This AVA is close to the Columbia Gorge (and many wind farms), so they experience constant winds. One benefit is the winds help in mixing air to minimize frost issues. Winds can also help in the summer by bringing cooler air. Furthermore, in a somewhat complicated process strong winds tend to slow down and at times stop photosynthesis Thus, it slows down maturation. So, the bottom line: this AVA is cooler compared with Red Mountain and Candy Mountain.
Rocky Reach has a soil composition that is different from the surrounding areas. Most areas in the Columbia Basin have basalt, but in the Rocky Reach, the Columbia River cut through the basalt to leave metamorphic rocks. There are also cobblestones and gravel from the glacier that was just to the north during the last ice age. These cobblestones tend to absorb heat and radiate this into the soil.
1,339 feet above the valley floor, many of the vines are planted on slopes facing north-northeast which decreases the solar radiation. Thus, grapes ripen later than the warmer Red Mountain and Candy Mountain AVAs.
Candy Mountain, at 1,360 feet, is certainly a warm AVA, and many suggest very similar to the Red Mountain AVA. According to the 2022 Growing Degree Days (GDD, which is determined by subtracting 50 degrees from the average daily temperature F), Candy Mountain had more GDDs than 16 (we did not have data for four of the AVAs) of the other Washington AVAs.
Goose Gap tops out at 1,339 feet and one of the unique features is that many of the plantings are on north-northeast facing slopes, which have lower solar radiation than the warmer areas like Red Mountain and Candy Mountain AVAs. Those plantings are on the warmer south-southwest facing slopes.
Another weather feature of this AVA is that it is close to the Yakima River and at times fog will move in from the river. This provides later ripening than Red and Candy Mountain AVA.
Our goal this summer is to visit all of these new AVAs.
Editorial disclosure: seminar attendance was generously provided.