Two weeks ago our host, Gilles Nicault, winemaker and manager of Long Shadows Winery in Walla Walla, guided us to lands of vinifera that he believes define the new appellations in Washington State -- Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Wahluke Slope. All of these appellations received official federal recognition only in the past couple of years, yet Gilles, a native of France, already appreciates their qualities of terroir. We also visited, for comparison, the Yakima Valley appellation, Washington's oldest, which was established in 1983. Through Gilles' eyes and experience, and through the words and craft of the caretakers of these vines, we left with a much greater understanding of terroir, which remains one of the most controversial words in the wine vocabulary. I know there is a t-shirt to be made when touring vineyards in Washington State: "So many vineyards, so little time."
Gilles drove us to vineyards that he thought best typified the new AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), showing us some of dramatic scenery along the way and, most important, introducing us to the passionate owners and farmers of those vines. Many of the vineyards we visited also contract grapes to Walla Walla wineries, which was of interest to me. I left every vineyard believing, absoultely, the old wine adage: great wines aren’t made in the winery, they’re grown in the vineyard.
The cool desert air flowing through the vineyard allows the grapes longer hang-time than in vineyards in the other, hotter Washington AVAs -- at least until late October, in fact, giving the grapes full maturity at lower sugar levels. The view from the vineyard's 1,400-foot elevation vineyard is spectacular: To the west is snow-capped Mt. Adams, and Mt Rainier is just barely visible. The oldest block in the vineyard, planted in 1980, has reached maturity. The property has an interesting soil profile, almost three feet of sandy loam on top of hard basalt bedrock. Dick likes soil sparse soil like this, he told us, explaining that it is difficult to control the vigor of the vines in deeper, richer soil. Just like the man who planted the vineyard, the vines seem to grow calm and stress-free.
Rattlesnake Hills AVA - Established in 2006, this new appellation is located approximately four miles southeast of Yakima. The 68,500-acre appellation has 17 wineries and 29 vineyards, with 1,500 acres planted in wine grapes. Those hills provide many Washington wineries with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling. Rattlesnake Hills encompasses the hills running east to west along the northern point of the Yakima River and south of Moxee Valley. It lies within both the established Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley appellations.
We met up with Gail Puryear of Bonair Winery and Vineyards. Gail and his wife Shirley founded Bonair Winery in 1980 in the area that I knew as a child as the "Zillah Fruit Loop" due to all the local fruit stands. But now, "Wine Loop" may better describe the area. Gail, who grew up nearby, was instrumental in creating the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, which is classified as a Region 2 in terms of climate, the same as California’s Napa Valley.
Gail took us up to the Morrison Vineyard right at the northern edge of the Rattlesnake Hills. He told us that when he decided to plant grapes in the Zillah area, a lot of locals and even some winegrowers laughed at him. They all thought Zillah was too cold for a vineyard. But the laughter has stopped; the Cabernet Sauvignon vines Gail showed us in the Morrison property are vigorous. The elevation of the hills ranges from 850 feet to 3,085 feet, above the danger point of frost, for the most part. I looked around and noticed the hot sand was laced with pale olive-colored sage brush, red Indian paintbrush and fragments of petrified wood. Gale pointed to his "pet" erratic laying beside the vineyard - a stone that traveled from the Missoula Floods many thousands of moons ago.
Red Mountain AVA - This red-peaked mountain (although it appeared to me as more of a prominent hill) is the focal point of an appellation established in 2001, situated between Benton City and Richland. Some say the name comes from the red hue of the soil, others say it's from the tips of the red native grass. It is the smallest appellation in the state, with just 4,040 total acres, but don't let the size fool you. Located at the east end of the Yakima Valley and with 10 wineries (the number grows as I type), there are more than 710 vineyard acres currently planted, and some of these are the finest in the entire state. Red Mountain is best known for producing red varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Sangiovese. Winemakers are drawn to the Red Mountain fruit. Gilles says that the terroir of Red Mountain tells us, "I want water! I want water!" The conditions are dry and the hours of sunlight are many.
Gilles and Patricia explained how the grapes ripen quickly in the long, sunny and windy days that characterize Red Mountain. The continual hot desert breeze toughens and thickens the skin on the grapes, producing more tannins, yet keeping flavor-producing phenols, too. Tannins give a wine structure and aging power. We sat under a wooden gazebo used to break the force of the wind. I watched Patricia grab her sun bonnet several times as the wind whipped across my own face. I was at peace as I viewed the red hills lined with vineyards and a row of wineries in the distance.
When you visit vineyards you get a real hankering to taste wines made from the grapes, of course. During the day we had a private tastings with Gail at Bonair Winery; he gave us a tour of his new "chateau-style" facility. We also visited Wine Glass Cellars in the Zillah area with winemakers/owners David and Linda Lowe. It's a small-production winery with high quality wines, especially red blends. David, who worked in sales for IBM, kept us laughing and entertained. We also had a private tasting at the new Fidelatas Winery in Red Mountain with winemaker Charlie Hoppes, formerly with Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla. This winery is a unique structure, a sort of stylized garage. The wine was elegant, and bottled in stylish and understated packaging.
Then off we went to destination unknown to us, though Gilles knew exactly where he was taking us. We crossed the interstate and headed southwest. We reached a gravel road and headed off in a cloud of dust, driving for miles. I couldn't even begin to imagine what would be at the end of the gravel road. Finally, there it was - - one of the most magnificent vineyards I will probably see in my whole life...