First of all, what’s an AVA? An American Viticultural Areas, or AVA, is a geographical wine grape growing region. Boundaries are determined by distinctive climate, soil, elevation and geological features of the land. They are defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and typically petitioned by wineries. Washington currently has 14 AVAs. We’ll travel through five of them and brush up against four more.
Columbia Valley is Washington’s largest AVA and represents one-third of the state’s landmass and 99 percent of its wine grapes. Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most widely planted varietals. Ten smaller AVAs with their own microclimates and unique topography are found within Columbia Valley. Variety typicity (i.e. how much a merlot tastes like a merlot) and pure fruit aromas and flavors are the hallmarks of wine from the Columbia Valley, according to the Washington State Wine Commission. All of the other AVAs we'll visit are found within this larger region.
Yakima Valley was Washington’s first federally-recognized AVA and includes 60 wineries. Its most widely planted grape is Chardonnay, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with Riesling and Syrah on the rise. With silt-loam soils predominating, this AVA is physically diverse, which allows for its wide variety of wine grapes. Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills are all sub-appellations within Yakima Valley AVA.
Red Mountain, although more of a slope, faces Southwest near the Yakima River in Yakima Valley’s eastern edge. More than 15 wineries are situated within this tiny AVA (Washington’s smallest) with more sourcing from it. Primary grape varieties planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Its sunny desert climate yields some full-bodied reds. We typically visit one of these wineries on our way to Walla Walla.
Grape growing began in the Walla Walla Valley AVA in the 1850s by Italian immigrants. This AVA dips its toes into Oregon as well and is comprised of over 100 wineries (Washington’s highest concentration). Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading varietal while Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Malbec are other predominant varieties. Then just about every other wine grape is grown here too in its silty loess soils. Because it is within the rain shadow of the Blue Mountains the region is cooler and wetter than many other Washington AVAs.
If you are on our six-night NW Explorer with Rails Tour, you’ll experience the Columbia Gorge AVA. Located within the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, its views don’t disappoint. A bit of a Washington anomaly, about 64% of its grapes are white. Passing through the Columbia Gorge from west to east, the rainfall diminishes at almost an inch per mile while sunshine increases dramatically, giving Western vineyards a cool marine-influenced climate, perfect for Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling, while Eastern vineyards boast sun-ripened big Bordeaux, Rhone and Italian varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera. Soil varieties vary just as much as wine styles from red old volcanic mudstone to gray basalt rock fragments.
Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, and Snipes Mountain are all sub-appellations found within the Yakima Valley. We don’t travel directly through the regions, but their wines are readily available for sampling. And the sexy new Rocks District can be found within Walla Walla Valley across the border into Oregon. You may run across Walla Walla wineries that source from this tiny AVA. Characterized by its rocky soil, its the only AVA in the U.S. determined solely by soil series (Freewater Soil) and land form (alluvial fan), producing big bold wines like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.