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Standing on the edge of Naches Heights Vineyard in Columbia Valley wine country, it’s easy to see why the winemaking industry has grown exponentially here over the last 30 years. The scene is idyllic, and the sweet and citrusy taste of sun-warmed grapes provides a promise of vintages to come.
Washington’s Columbia Valley is second only to California in U.S. wine production and is currently home to more than 700 wineries, up from 19 in 1981. While only 3 to 5 percent of the wine sold across the country hails from this region, these mostly small businesses ferment a diverse cadre of wine grape varietals. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and riesling are among the most popular, but vintners like Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe winery in Prosser, Wash., are pushing the envelope by introducing new varieties such as zinfandel and petite syrah, which are not typically grown in the area.
Distinct in climate from the more temperate Puget Sound region, the Columbia Valley, which stretches east across the state from the Cascade Mountains and south into Oregon, experiences environmental conditions that make it ideal for wine grape crops. Its northern latitude equates to longer days (up to two more hours of sun than California during the peak of summer), imparting better ripening potential to the grapes and leading to increased sugar accumulation; moderate temperatures during fall harvest help the fruit retain its acidity for more intense flavor.
Within the region there are a number of unique microclimates that support varying grape types, but generally speaking, the sandy, low-nutrient, well-drained soil is a key factor in producing small but effective vines. A final advantage that this region provides is protection from disease and pests. The grapes grown here are not indigenous, and as a result, they are less susceptible to these types of problems. The hot summer days and cold winters also keep the bugs at bay.
Despite seeing optimum growing conditions most of the time, occasional weather variations in the Columbia Valley can diminish the quality of the grapes and resulting wine. Extra-harsh winters can cause up to a 25 percent loss in harvestable grapes, and the unusually cool and wet weather experienced in the last several years has yielded less desirable vintages. Anticipation is building for the 2012 crop, though, as vintners are expecting a favorable and complex flavor due to the long, hot growing season this year.
Be sure to stop at Thurston Wolfe’s tasting room for dessert wines that are sweet but not overpowering and a petite syrah that is full-bodied and rich. Like Naches Heights Vineyard, Thurston Wolfe is also available for private dinners catered by local chefs.
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