Washington’s terroir sets stage for quality grapes, wine

By David Forsyth

Washington state wines are now recognized as a legitimate player in the world wine market. While small in stature relative to the California industry, Washington wines are appreciated for their quality, value and their potential to becoming a bigger player in U.S. wine production. As the wine sales shift from less than $10 to $12 to $20 per bottle, Washington wines are well positioned to produce the quality and supply the quantity needed to fill that market segment.

This interest in Washington grapes and wines has led to a growing number of California wineries buying vineyards and wineries in Washington to garner a piece of this market. Washington vineyard acreage and the number of wineries continue to steadily increase each year.

David Forsyth

David Forsyth

So, what is driving this growth? It’s simple: quality. And what is determining the quality, in large part, is our climate and soils. This effect has a name, “terroir,” which is the term for those collective components which will affect and make the grapes from a vineyard site taste unique from other nearby vineyards. A short list of these components includes sunlight, rain, wind, vineyard orientation – that is the way it is planted relative to the elements – daytime and nighttime temperature, soil and surrounding crops. The temperature can vary within a vineyard from the top to bottom of a hill, and breezes can carry warming or cooling air.

These collective environmental inputs will define in large part how the grapes from those vineyards will taste or the essence or character of that site. On top of the terroir effect are significant inputs from the vineyard manager such as irrigation, canopy management, pruning, leaf-stripping and crop load management, which will modify and potentially improve and perhaps intensify the quality and character of the site.

Winemakers will have a say in determining when to pick the grapes. The ripeness of the fruit at harvest will impact the flavor, alcohol level, balance, color, body, and astringency in a large part defining the style of the wine. The style is another layer on top of the vineyard character or the terroir of the site.

As a winemaker I am continually amazed at the impact of terroir on the quality and defining character of a wine. I’ve seen the worst looking vineyards produce the best wines and a beautiful well-managed vineyard produce mediocre wines. Even within the same vineyard, managed by one grower, I’ve seen dramatic differences in quality from grapes picked from the top rows and those from the bottom rows.

So, what is about our terroir in Washington that lends itself to producing great fruit and resultant great wines?  One must first understand the requirements of a grape vines to produce quality fruit.

These requirements are sunlight, warm temperatures, water and nutrients.  The location of vineyard land in Eastern Washington with the Cascade Mountain range forming an effective cloud and rain barrier allows for long days of sunlight and warm growing days. Sunlight is required for photosynthesis – a factor along with the warm days of optimum growing temperatures from the mid-70s to low 90s allows for the development of plant tissue in the vine and fruit. As the grape clusters grow, sugars, flavor, and in red grapes, color, are produced.

Also important are our cool nights in Eastern Washington, which help trigger the reactions in the vine to produce flavor and color while preserving the natural acidity in the grape. With little water available during the growing season from rain, we do have to irrigate the vines to give them the water they need. Irrigation allows us to control the timing and the amount of water the vines will receive, which has a huge impact on the size of the vine canopy, leaf surface area and berry size. Our sandy-loam well-drained soils also aid in helping manage the available water and nutrients that a vine has available at that time.

Eastern Washington geography also offers diversity, because we have many different soils and differences in meso-climates. Meso-climate is the climate of a specific vineyard site. These differences can be defined in part by legal definitions called American Viticultural Appellations, or AVA. An appellation is a federally recognized growing area with defined boundaries within which the area shares a unique set of soils, topography and/or climate – the terroir – that sets it apart from other grape growing areas. In Washington, there are 14 of these appellations.

The largest is the Columbia Valley, which has within it smaller appellations and those in turn may have appellations within them. These include Rattlesnake Hills AVA within the Yakima Valley AVA. Wines made from grapes grown from within these appellations may have share characteristics derived from the climate and soils, which in turn help support the concept of appellations. To place an AVA on a wine label, at least 85 percent of the wine in that bottle had to originate from grapes from that area.

As with many situations where definitions are used, there are also many exceptions.  While I consider the oldest Washington appellation, the Yakima Valley AVA, one of the cooler appellations, within this AVA is the small Red Mountain AVA, which is one of the warmest AVAs in the state, with its south and southeastern exposure and proximity to the Columbia Valley. The Red Mountain AVA is also distinctive with its diversity of soil types, breezes and slopes.

Washington wines are gaining ground in acreage and in interest from the industry, thanks to our varied geology and geography, and abundance of water and sunshine. The interplay of the elements and the talents of the vineyard managers and winemaker insights create excellent grapes. Good wines begin with good soils which Washington state has in abundance.

David Forsyth is the winemaker and general manager of Four Feathers Wine Estates in Prosser.

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