Washington red wine... with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon you can't go wrong

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Washington red wine is wine produced from grape varieties grown in the U.S. state of Washington. Washington ranks second in the United States in the production of wine, behind only California. By 2006, the state had over 31,000 acres (130 km2) of vineyards, a harvest of 120,000 short tons (109,000 t) of grapes, and exports going to over 40 countries around the world from the 600 wineries located in the state. While there are some viticultural activities in the cooler, wetter western half of the state, the majority (99%) of wine grape production takes place in the desert-like eastern half.The rain shadow of the Cascade Range leaves the Columbia River Basin with around 8 inches (200 mm) of annual rain fall, making irrigation and water rights of paramount interest to the Washington red wine industry. Viticulture in the state is also influenced by long sunlight hours (on average, two more hours a day than in California during the growing season) and consistent temperatures.

The early history of the Washington red wine industry can be traced to the introduction of Cinsault grapes by Italian immigrants to the Walla Walla region. In the 1950s and 1960s, the precursors of the state's biggest wineries (Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Winery) were founded. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, the wine world discovered a new aspect of Washington red wines with each passing decade - starting with Rieslings and Chardonnays in the 1970s, the Merlot craze of the 1980s and the emergence of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the 1990s. Washington has eleven federally-defined American Viticultural Areas mostly located in Eastern Washington. The largest AVA is the Columbia Valley AVA, which extends into a small portion of northern Oregon and also encompasses six of the other Washington AVAs. These include the Walla Walla Valley AVA, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, the Wahluke Slope AVA, Lake Chelan AVA and the Yakima Valley AVA, which in turn also encompasses the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, Snipes Mountain AVA and the Red Mountain AVA. The Columbia Gorge AVA is west of the Columbia Valley AVA. Washington's only AVA located west of the Cascades is the Puget Sound AVA. The Ancient Lakes wine-growing region is currently seeking federal AVA status.


The Cascade Mountain ranges are a defining feature in both the geography and climate of Washington state. It serves as a dividing line between the wet, marine influenced climate of the western part of the state from the drier, desert-like climate of the eastern half. The mountains themselves create a rain shadow over the eastern half by blocking weather fronts holding precipitation from carrying over the mountains and descending onto the Columbia River Basin.[4] This creates the arid desert like conditions with a more continental climate in Eastern Washington and heightens the roles of rivers—most notably the Walla Walla, Yakima, Snake and Columbia River-- in the region's viticulture. In addition to providing vital irrigation sources, the rivers also help to moderate temperatures during the winter which is prone to severe frost and freeze coming from the Arctic. In winter, overnight temperatures in the Washington red wine growing regions of Eastern Washington can drop to as low as −15 °F (−26 °C). The sudden drop to these sub-zero temperatures can make the water in a vine's wood canopy quickly freeze which can cause the vine to literally burst open. The severity of these conditions can wreak havoc on a year's harvest, as was the case in the Walla Walla AVA with the big winter freezes of 1996 and 2003.

The geological history of the state can be traced to the movement of glaciers along the edge of the Pacific Northwestern section of the North American Plate that retreated from the area over 16,000 years ago, leaving behind a free-draining gravel bed up to 250 feet (76 m) deep in some places. The Great Missoula Floods at the end of Ice Age created much of the Columbia River basin and brought soil deposits to the region from as far away as modern day Montana. These floods released a torrent waves of water (nearly equal to the amount of water in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie combined) traveling more than 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers) and 500 feet (152 m) high across the Columbia Plateau. These floods carved out the geographical landscape of the region, creating coulees and gravel bars as well as depositing layers of gravels, sands and silt that would eventually mix with loess and volcanic dust.

Today the topsoil found through the Columbia Valley is mostly sandy and stone-studded on top of basalt-based soil foundation created by persistent lava. These sandy loam vineyard soils create a mostly inhospitable environment for the phylloxera louse to survive which may be one of the reasons why the phylloxera epidemic has not ravaged the Washington red wine industry as it has the Californian and French wine industries in the past. The state's northerly location above the 46th parallel north allows Washington red wine growing regions to experience 17 hours of sunlight in the summer, two more hours of sunlight during the peak of growing season than what California sees further south. During the growing season Eastern Washington experiences a wide diurnal temperature variation (up to 40 °F (4.4 °C) difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows) which allows the fruit to fully ripening while the cool nights help the vines to shut down, allowing the grape to maintain natural levels of acidity.


The earliest grape vines planted in Washington State was at Fort Vancouver in 1825 by traders working for the Hudson's Bay Company but it is not known for sure if Washington red wine was ever produced from these plantings. The first people who were definitely known to produce wine were German and Italian immigrants who planted their wine grapes in Washington during the 1860s & 1870s. Washington was one of the first states to usher in the start of Prohibition, going dry in 1917 and shutting down most of the Washington red wine production. Some scattered grape growers stayed afloat during this period selling grapes to home winemakers but nearly all the state's commercial wines went out of business. Following the end of Prohibition, Washington's fledgling red wine industry was based primarily on fortified sweet wine production made from the Vitis Labrusca variety Concord. The Nawico and Pommerelle wineries were the most widely recognized producers, making millions of gallons each year of sweet jug wine made from Concord and other varieties. In the 1950s, the planting of Vitis vinifera saw an increase spearheaded, in part, by the work of Dr. Walter Clore and Washington State University which conducted a series of trials on which grape vines produced the best in various soils and climates of Washington.

The roots of the modern Washington red wine industry can been traced to the mid 20th century when a group of professors from the University of Washington turned their home winemaking operation into a commercial endeavor and founded Associated Vintners (later renamed Columbia Winery) and focused on producing premium Washington red wine. The Nawico and Pommerelle wineries were merged into a new winery that would eventually become Chateau Ste Michelle. With the hiring of Andre Tchelistcheff as a consultant, Chateau Ste Michelle and Associated Vintners became the driving force in premium Washington red wine production for the early modern Washington red wine industry. Grenache was one of the first Vitis vinifera grapes to be successfully vinified with a 1966 Yakima Valley rosé earning mention in wine historian Leon Adams treatise The Wines of America. The 1970s ushered in a period of expansion with early vineyards being planted in the Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla and Red Mountain areas. The 1978 Leonetti Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was featured on the cover of a national wine publication and touted as the best Cabernet of vintage. The 1980s saw further expansion with the opening of large, scale family owned wineries such as Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole N°41, Barnard Griffin and Hogue Cellars that soon won many awards from national and international wine competition. In 1988, Chateau Ste Michelle was named "Best American Winery" and in 1989 five Washington wines made Wine Spectator's "Top 100 list" for the first time.

Following the broadcast in 1991 of the 60 Minutes episode on the so-called "French Paradox", American consumption of Washington red wine saw a dramatic increase. The grape variety Merlot, in particular, proved to be very popular among consumers. The Washington Wine Commission made the marketing of the state's a focus putting Washington red wine in prime position to capitalize on the new "Merlot craze". Plantings of the varietal increase more than fivefold and Washington Merlots were featured prominently on restaurant wine list across the country. From there producers went on to experiment with success on varieties and blends as the Washington red wine industry steadily grew. By the beginning of the 21st century, the wine industry was generating more than 2.4 billion dollars annually for the state with wine grape being the fourth most important fruit crop in the state-behind apples, pears and cherries. By 2007 the state had certified its 500th winery. In early 2009, the state's 600th winery opened.


Geographically and viticulturally, Washington is divided into section separated by the Cascade Mountain chain. The cooler, wetter Western Washington which includes the population centers of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia is responsible for less than 1% of the Washington red wine production and is home to one American Viticultural Area (AVA)-the Puget Sound AVA. However, many wineries such as Chateau Ste Michelle, Andrew Will, Quilceda Creek and those located in Woodinville wine country have production facilities and tasting rooms in Western Washington. These wineries will often either own or buy from vineyards in Eastern Washington and have the grapes trucked over to the mountains to their facility. The warmer, drier eastern part of the state is home to the vast Columbia Valley which extends south into Oregon. The Columbia Valley AVA is sub-divided into several smaller AVAs including Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Red Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills and Snipes Mountain. To the north in the larger Columbia Valley AVA is the recently added Lake Chelan AVA, and two pending AVAs, the Ancient Lakes AVA in the north central part of the state, and one around Wenatchee on the Columbia River. West of the Columbia Valley is the Columbia Gorge AVA which, along with the Walla Walla AVA, is also shared with Oregon.

Columbia Valley AVA

The large Columbia Valley AVA was established in 1984 and covers more than a third of the state and crosses over the border into Oregon. Within this large AVA are several smaller AVAs including the Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Walla Walla and Yakima Valley AVAs. Of the region's 11.5 million acres (4.65 million hectares), nearly 16,670 acres (6,750 ha) were planted as of 2008. The boundaries of the AVA extend south from the Okanagan wilderness and include most of the Columbia River Basin extending east along the Snake River to the Idaho border. Many of the Columbia Valley's vineyards are planted along a broad, semi-arid plateau at altitudes of 1,000-2,000 feet (300-600 meters). The climate of the Columbia, like most of Eastern Washington, is continental though a wide range of microclimates exist. The area sees anywhere from 1,240 to 1,440 degree days Celsius with most of these microclimates falling into classifications of Regions I and II on the Winkler scale of heat summation. On average the Columbia Valley sees over 300 cloudless days a years and experiences no more than 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rainfall. The Horse Heaven Hills AVA was established in 2005 and is home of some of the state's largest and oldest vineyards. Of the region's 570,000 acres (230,000 ha), nearly 6,180 acres (2,500 ha) were planted as of 2008. The boundaries of the AVA follow its namesake hills to the north which forms the southern border of the Yakima Valley and extends southward to the Columbia River. In 1972, the first vineyard planted was planted in this region called Mercer Ranch. Now known as Champoux Vineyard, it is one of the most prestigious and sought after grapes in the state with it name appearing on several vineyard designated wines. The vineyard is also home to some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the country. Many of the best vineyards are planted along the right bank of the Columbia River, though some areas are prone to exposure to winds in excess of 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers) at which point vines are at risk of shutting down, metabolically and hindering the ripening process. However the wind also serves to toughen grape skins, which can increase phenols, moderate temperatures and keep the vine's canopy dry which aids in disease control.

The Wahluke Slope AVA was established in 2006 and produces, on average, around 20% of the state's wine grapes. Of the region's 81,000 acres (33,000 ha), nearly 5,190 acres (2,100 ha) were planted as of 2008. Located among the foothills south of the Saddle Mountains, the Wahluke Slope is one of the warmest and driest regions in the state. The Columbia River forms the western and southern boundaries of the AVA with the Hanford Reach National Monument bordering the appellation on the east. The vintage characteristics of Wahluke slope is very consistent year to year due to the area's reliably dry, warm climate and uniform coarse gravelly sand soils that drain water well. More than three quarters of the area's production is in Washington red wine grapes-particular Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. As of 2007, more than 50 wineries purchased grapes from the Wahluke Slope with many of them featuring the AVA or one of its 20 vineyards on wine labels.

In April 2009 the Lake Chelan AVA, located around Lake Chelan in the Columbia Valley was approved as an American Viticultural Area.The Columbia Valley may be further sub-divided with regions near Leavenworth, the Wenatchee Valley and along the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains (in a region collectively called the Columbia Cascades) expected to seek federally designation.

Yakima Valley AVA

The Yakima Valley AVA was established in 1983 and is the oldest agricultural region in the state. The third largest AVA, the area is responsible for more than 40% of the state's entire wine production. Located within the larger Columbia Valley AVA, the Yakima Valley AVA is further sub-divided into the smaller Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills AVAs Of the region's 665,000 acres (269,000 ha), nearly 11,120 acres (4,500 ha) were planted as of 2008. Within the larger AVA are vineyard planted in some of the coolest regions in Eastern Washington including Boushey Vineyard. The boundaries of the AVA are framed from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the west and follows the path of the Yakima Valley to Red Mountain which shapes its eastern border. The Rattlesnake Hills and Horse Heaven Hills frame the AVA to the north and south, respectively. The Yakima Valley is home to state's highest concentration of wineries.

The Red Mountain AVA was established in 2001 and is the smallest Washington red wine regions. Of the region's 4,040 acres (1,630 ha), nearly 740 acres (300 ha) were planted as of 2008. The vast majority of the AVA is composed of gentle slope made up of sandy loam soil with high calcium content. The area has good air drainage that sees full southern exposure which allows the wine grapes to maintain increased acidity levels and attain optimal ripeness. In recent years Red Mountain has seen an increase of interest in the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Sangiovese. The soils of Red Mountain are low in nutrients with high pH levels. This limits the vigor of the vine producing low yields, small canopy and grape berry sizes 50-60% smaller than the varietal norm. Despite having a reputation as Washington most prestigious and highly sought after AVA, growth in the Red Mountain area was limited by lack of available water rights, needed to establish irrigation. In 2005, the Washington Department of Natural Resources released water rights for 600 acres (240 ha) of land suitable for vineyard development. The new developments is expected to increase the profile of the AVA.

The Rattlesnake Hills AVA was established in 2006 amidst some controversy about whether the terroir of the region was sufficiently different from the greater Yakima Valley AVA. Of the region's 68,500 acres (27,700 ha), nearly 1,235 acres (500 ha) were planted as of 2008. The appellation covers the northern expanse of the Yakima Valley and features the highest elevation than the rest of the valley ranging from 850 feet (260 m) to 3,000 feet (910 m). The temperatures of the region are moderate during the peak growing season but are significantly warmer during the winters than other parts of the Columbia Valley (an average of 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit) which limits the frost danger in the appellation.

The Snipes Mountain AVA was established in 2009. With 4,145 acres (1,677 ha), it is the second smallest AVA in the state, after Red Mountain. The viticultural area is located on Snipes Mountain, a long anticline ridge that rises from the floor of the Lower Yakima Valley with comparatively unique, rocky soils, called aridisols. The viticultural area also includes Harrison Hill, which lies contiguously east of Snipes Mountain and has similar soil and topography.

Walla Walla AVA

The Walla Walla AVA was established in 1984 with its boundaries amended in 2001. Mostly contained within Washington, a portion of this appellation does extend south into Oregon. Of the region's 303,500 acres (122,800 ha), nearly 1,110 acres (450 ha) were planted as of 2008. Along with its Washington red wine, Walla Walla is known for its sweet onions that is a local food and wine pairing favorite with the Merlot grown in the appellation. The region is generally wetter than the rest of the Columbia Valley, receiving more than 20 inches (50 centimeter) of rain on average each year. The area between the town of Walla Walla east to the Blue Mountains is the wettest with each mile east of the city closer to the mountains seeing an extra inch of ran. The Walla Walla AVA contains at least four distinct soil profiles scattered across the valley-slackwater terrace, loess, river gravel and flood plain silt. The majority of Walla Walla's vineyards located on a combination of slackwater terrace and loess. The silt and volcanic ash that makes up the region's loess soils contain remnants from the eruption of Mount Mazama (which also formed the Crater Lake nearly 400 miles (640 km) away in Oregon).

Other Regions

The Columbia Gorge AVA was established in 2004. Of the region's 179,200 acres (72,500 ha), nearly 445 acres (180 ha) were planted as of 2008. Similar to the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla AVAs, this appellation also cross over the border south into Oregon where Pinot noir and Pinot gris. Located along the Columbia River as it bisects the Cascade Range, parts of the AVA fall within a wind tunnel that is a popular tourist destination for wind surfing but can too fierce for viticulture. Most of the vineyards planted on the Washington side of the appellation are located on south facing slopes above the river where it can receive some protection from the winds. Depending on the elevation vineyards in the Columbia Gorge AVA receive anywhere from 18-30 inches (46-76 centimeters) of rain annually.

The Puget Sound AVA is the only Washington red wine growing region located in Western Washington. Of the region's 4.75 million acres (1.9 million hectare), only 200 acres (81 ha) were planted as of 2008-mostly to cool weather varieties like Madeleine Angevine, Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Pinot noir and Siegerrebe. Granted AVA status in 1995, the appellation extends from the foothills of the Cascades to the Olympic Peninsula and islands located in Puget Sound. The climate is heavily affected by the marine influences of nearby Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean which contributes to mild temperatures, wet winters and dry summers make it ideal for some cool climate grape varieties. The region sees more sunshine than Bordeaux and is drier in average precipitation than Burgundy.


The early Washington red wine industry focused predominately on white wines but in recent years, lead by the "Merlot-craze" of the 1990s have shifted the focus to the Washington red wines. Chardonnay also experienced a boom of interested in the 1990s and along with Riesling are among the most widely planted grape varieties in the state. While the acreage of Riesling has been steadily decline, there has been renewed interest in the grape in recent years.

Today there are over 80 grape varieties grown in Washington state, the primary grapes used in the production of wine are from the Vitis vinifera family of grapes. The main grapes used in wine production in Washington include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petite Syrah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Zinfandel. Vineyard acreage planted to red varieties was 17,351 acres (7,022 ha) in 2006. The four most prevalent red varieties were Cabernet Sauvignon at 5,959 acres (2,412 ha), Merlot at 5,853 acres (2,369 ha), Syrah at 2,831 acres (1,146 ha), and Cabernet Franc at 1,157 acres (468 ha). Vineyard acreage planted to white varieties was 13,649 acres (5,524 ha). The four most prevalent white varieties were Chardonnay at 5,992 acres (2,425 ha), Riesling at 4,404 acres (1,782 ha), Sauvignon Blanc at 993 acres (402 ha), and Gewürztraminer at 632 acres (256 ha).

Washington State is also home to plantings of some lesser known Vitis vinifera varieties that are used in wine production for some experimental wines and blending. These include Abouriou, Alicante Bouschet, Aligoté, Auxerrois, Black Cornichon, Black Monukka, Black Muscat, Black Prince, Blauer Portugieser, Calzin, Carignane, Chasselas, Chauche Gris, Clevner Mariafeld, Colombard, Csaba, Ehrenfelser, Feher Szagos, Gamay, Green Hungarian, Lemberger, Madeleine Angevine, Madeleine Sylvaner, Melon de Bourgogne, Mission, Morio Muscat, Muller-Thurgau, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Ottonel, Palomino, Petite Verdot, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Pirovano, Rkatsiteli, Rose of Peru, Salvador, Sauvignon Vert, Scheurebe, Siegerrebe, Sylvaner, Trollinger, and Trousseau. Some notable French hybrid grapes used in wine production include Aurore and Baco Noir.

Washington red wine is often characterized by their bright fruit flavors and crisp acidity. In recent years, the Washington red wines have leaned towards riper, more fruit forward flavors, noticeable tannins and oak influence with moderately high alcohol levels. Wine experts such as Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson have described quality examples of Washington red wines to exhibit fresh acidity, deep coloring, with bright, intense fruit flavors that can usually age in the bottle for at least 8 years before the fruit structure starts to fade. Karen MacNeil notes that the Washington red wine, especially the Cabernets and Merlots, often exhibited lush texture with very concentrated berry flavors reminiscent of the wild fruit found in the Pacific Northwest such as blackberries, boysenberries, cherries and raspberries. The state is often described as combing New World fruit with Old World style. Paul Gregutt, wine writer for The Seattle Times and Wine Enthusiast describe Washington red wines as maintaining strong purity and typicity of varietal flavors with firm, ripe tannins and bright acidity. Gregutt says Washington wines have the potential to combine the structure and polish of French wines with the ripness and fruit of California wines.

Washington produces a full spectrum of wines ranging from mass-produced to premium boutique wines. It also produces nearly every style of wine including rosé, sparkling, fruit, fortified, still and late harvest dessert wines afflicted with Botrytis cinerea. Some years can even produce favorable conditions for ice wine production. In 2006, The Wine Advocate gave two perfect scores of 100 points for Cabernet Sauvignon wines made by Quilceda Creek Vintners using grapes from several Washington AVAs. Only 15 other American wines have ever been scored so highly by The Wine Advocate, all from California. Chateau Ste Michelle Wine Estates (which owns the original Chateau Ste Michelle label as well as several others) is the largest producer in the state, owning more than a third of all vineyard land in Washington.

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