In the past decade, the Walla Walla Valley has developed into a winemaking and wine-touring destination, thanks to the large number of wineries starting up in the region and the high quality of winemaking that taking place since Leonetti Cellar began in 1977.
Forty years later, there are nearly 150 wineries in the valley, and about 3,000 acres of vineyards. The focus is on cabernet sauvignon and syrah, as red grapes make up about 95 percent of what’s grown in the region. In fact, King Cab makes up more than a third of the planted acreage.
A study released in the summer of 2015 showed that nearly 60 percent of the vines were planted on the Washington side of the American Viticultural Area that includes the town of Milton-Freewater, Ore. However, there is more available vineyard land and proposed plantings on the Oregon side of the AVA, so look for that percentage to flip south when the next study is published.
Here are a few wines made from Walla Walla Valley grapes that we have tried recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or call the wineries directly:
Amavi Cellars 2015 Estate Sémillon, Walla Walla Valley, $24: Norm McKibben and Jean François-Pellet created Amavi Cellars in 2001 to showcase grape varieties beyond those from Bordeaux that dominate their illustrious Pepper Bridge brand. However, JF’s continued mastery with sémillon stands alongside the best in the state. Neutral French oak fermentation leads to aromas of ripe cantaloupe, apricot glacée and dusty lemon. The mouth feel is remarkably complex with delicious flavors of Jonagold apple and fig with a sheen of lemon oil that leads to a finish of green apple.
College Cellars 2014 Cockburn Ranch Vineyard Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $26: Walla Walla Community College instructors and students worked with growers on this project, which opens with attractive aromas of black currant, blackberry and dark chocolate, leading to a round and rich drink of marionberry, boysenberry and Devil’s Food Cake. Underlying notes of banana chip and lavender add to its amazing complexity and balanced structure.
L’Ecole No. 41 2015 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Luminesce White Wine, Walla Walla Valley, $22: Marty Clubb continues to shine with white Bordeaux varieties, including this blend of sauvignon blanc with sèmillon. Seven Hills Vineyard was planted in 1981, and the aromas offered are Lemonhead candy, fresh-dried apricot and almond, leading to flavors of lemon, green banana and coconut, backed by pleasing bitterness and refreshing acidity that lend it deliciously to seafood.
Pepper Bridge Winery 2013 Trine Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley, $65: This marks the sixth vintage for the McKibben/Pellet team’s meritage-style bottling from their three vineyards, and cabernet sauvignon is the lead grape. It’s a fruit basket of berries in the nose, joined by chocolate-covered marshmallow and cherry jam. On the pour, there’s more of the same as black cherry, black currant and marionberry swirl amid a smooth and creamy texture with a pleasant finish of age-worthy tannins.
Reininger Winery 2014 Seven Hills Vineyard Carménère, Walla Walla Valley, $51: Chuck Reininger, a former Mount Rainier climbing guide, is a pioneer in Washington with this obscure Bordeaux variety, which he began working with in 2002. Beyond the initially chewy tannins is a Carménère of unusually bright fruit – think watermelon – remarkable spice and unfamiliar perseverance.
The Elephant Seven Wine Co. 2014 River Rock Vineyard Telegram Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $35: Winemaker/owner Joshua West pulled from his experience at Dusted Valley, Cadaretta and Figgins to help develop a plummy nose with marionberry and vanilla, sweet herbs and rose petals. Marionberry jam and baking spices lead the flavors, backed by bright boysenberry acidity and the savory notes one comes to expect from the funk found in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.
Tricycle Cellars 2013 Winesap Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $49: Chuck Hundley, Class of ’13 in Walla Walla Community College’s viticulture and enology program, created this expressive cabernet sauvignon as the debut release for his young brand. Marionberry and blueberry aromas include moist earth and savory black olive. Its flavor profile comes with a subtext of bright purple fruit, backed by well-managed tannins, Nutella and vanilla. A portion of this wine’s sales help support Embracing Orphans, a group dedicated to assisting orphaned and abused children in Jamaica.
Saviah Cellars 2013 Tempranillo, Walla Walla Valley, $38: Richard Funk, a winemaker and grower along the state line, sets the table with alluring aromas of blackberry, plum and baking spices joined by espresso. Expressive flavors including blackberry jam, Rainier cherry and cola are backed by juicy acidity, mocha and vanilla.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.