Benches Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA (Columbia Valley), Washington | Columbia Valley Wine Country Guide

Aerial view over Benches Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA (Columbia Valley), Washington.

In recent years, Columbia Valley has become recognized by wine enthusiasts and professionals around the world as one of the premier New World wine growing regions within the United States. Since its inception in 1984, Columbia Valley has become the grandest of AVA’s within Washington State (over 11 million acres), and its landmass comprises no less than 1/3 of the entire state. This means that almost every other wine growing region within Washington is a sub-apellation of Columbia Valley, except for the Columbia Gorge and Puget Sound.

Columbia Valley Washington Wine Country Map

Around 99% of all wine produced in Washington State comes from the Columbia Valley. In fact, the entire wine region extends beyond the borders of Washington to the South, encroaching on the Northeastern portion of Oregon. If you’re looking to take a wine vacation to sample Washington’s production diversity, it’s safe to say that you need not go outside of this AVA.

The Grape Varieties of Columbia Valley

Columbia Valley Washington State Grape Varieties | Cabernet Sauvignon grows on vines at Uplands Vineyard. | Columbia Valley Wine

Cabernet Sauvignon grows on vines at Uplands Vineyard. Image courtesy Washington State Wine.

This wine region is perhaps best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot production, although fine expressions of Riesling, Chardonnay and Syrah are also being produced. The current ratio of red to white is 58% to 42%.

It is worth pointing out some of the noteworthy flavors present in Columbia Valley red wines, as they are true to their New Worldliness. Cabernet Sauvignon brings to light black and red fruit-forward flavors, backed by substantial hints of earth and in some cases vanilla creme-brulee. Merlot adheres to more red and blue fruit flavors, with some evidence of overripe berries, red cherries and anise.

For white wine, flavor and aromatic profiles largely depend on individual growing sites and micro climates. While most vines throughout the entire region are are planted on South-facing slopes — which helps to capture the most sunlight during the growing season and promotes drainage during the winter — some vineyard sites are warmer than others.

Grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Riesling grown in cooler areas will almost always exhibit more citrus and tree fruit flavors (think lemon, lime and melon). On the other hand, warmer sites will typically yield more evidence of stone fruit in the wine (think peach, apricot and nectarine). Use of oak varies and is dependent upon individual producer, but Riesling tends to be un-oaked, while Chardonnay could go either way.

While the above describes some of the more typical flavors and aromas of popular grape varieties, Columbia Valley’s vast landscape and diverse micro-climates make it nearly impossible to generalize. Around 30 other grape varieties are also produced, ranging from Pinot Gris and Viognier to Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. Don’t be afraid to sample some of the seemingly random grape varieties and blends. There are a number of innovative producers working to extract hidden gems from this relatively young AVA.

Loess Vineyard, Leonetti Cellar, Walla Walla, Washington in the Columbia Valley

Loess Vineyard, Leonetti Cellar, Walla Walla, Washington. Image courtesy Washington State Wine.

Columbia Valley Sub-Appellations

Currently, there are 10 sub-appellations with Columbia Valley, and more could potentially be announced.

The current list includes:

  • Red Mountain
  • Yakima Valley
  • Walla Walla Valley
  • Wahluke Slope
  • Rattlesnake Hills
  • Horse Heaven Hills
  • Snipes Mountain
  • Lake Chelan
  • Naches Heights
  • Ancient Lakes

The soil composition of these AVAs is varied. Many, many years ago, there were a series of floods that persisted throughout the region known as the Missoula Floods. During this time, a large amount of silt-based soil and sand was washed into the area, ontop of the already exisiting volcanic rock and gravel. This soil makeup is ideal for growing grape vines, as it allows rainfall to drain much more efficiently.

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At the same time, the continental-esque climate here is conducive to producing quality, concentrated and complex wine. Minimal rainfall (between 6-8 inches per year) occurs, forcing the vines to work a little bit harder to survive — thus yielding more concentrated fruit. While this is beneficial to an extent, such a small degree of precipitation often requires Vintners to irrigate their vines. Lastly, by controlling irrigation, producers can better control yields and fruit size, ensuring that vintages stay relatively consistent and of a higher quality. There are only a few regions in the world afforded this luxury.

Spring Valley Vineyard, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, Washington | Columbia Valley Wine Region Guide

Spring Valley Vineyard, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, Washington. Image courtesy Washington State Wine Association.

Discover the Story of Washington Wine

Washington State is a magestically beautiful place. We encourage you to visit this magical region in the Pacific Northwest, and please feel free to ask us any questions in the comment section below.

Stay tuned over the next few months as we review a number of wineries worth visiting, in addition to recommended wine routes and trails to take throughout the Columbia Valley.

Sources include the Washington State Wine Association and the Columbia Valley AVA.

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