The history of wine grapes along the banks of Washington’s Lake Chelan goes back to the 1880s, but that all but disappeared until the late 1990s, when a soft apple market had orchardists thinking about a new direction.
And thus the region’s wine industry was reborn.
Today, Lake Chelan still is not a huge wine region, but it is growing — and most importantly, it is changing the economics of the community it surrounds.
About 20 wineries now dot the north and south shores of Lake Chelan, with all of them being within a few minutes’ drive of the communities of Chelan and Manson. Nearly 300 acres of wine grapes are in the ground, as winemakers are beginning to figure out what varieties work best in this American Viticultural Area, established in 2009.
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Though it is a young wine region, Lake Chelan already has found a tremendous amount of success, thanks to the fact that it is based in a town that knows how to treat tourists. The infrastructure already is in place with lodging and food, and Washington residents are used to coming to this area of the state. The wine industry even has helped stretch the tourism season from 10 weeks to more than six months.
Here are a few examples of wines we’ve tasted from Lake Chelan wineries. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Nefarious Cellars 2012 Defiance Vineyard Malbec, Lake Chelan, $35: Owners Dean and Heather Neff have crafted a superb red with tones of cocoa powder and maple syrup. Its hallmark is the theme of ripe Marionberry and black cherry, and while there’s black licorice concentration on the midpalate, its lithe tannin structure allows for the delicious lingering of blueberry acidity to become the focus. (14.6 percent alcohol)
Wapato Point Cellars 2010 Reserve Syrah, Lake Chelan, $38: This Syrah saw 30 months in French and Hungarian barrels, resulting in aromas of brown sugar, heavy toast and horehound, followed by a big entry of cherry, chocolate, blackstrap molasses and light tobacco. It’s capped by mild tannins and stuffed dates. (13.6 percent alcohol)
Chelan Ridge Winery 2009 Cabernet Franc, Lake Chelan, $34: Lynn Munneke uses fruit from her family’s 13-acre sustainably farmed vineyard along the north shore of Lake Chelan in Manson. This Cab Franc is filled with black cherry, red currant and blackberry aromas among crumbled graham cracker and milk chocolate. There’s a bit of crushed herbs on the palate among the ripe cherry and plum flavors, surrounded by elegant tannins and capped with sweet spices. (14.8 percent alcohol)
Tsillan Cellars 2013 Estate Sempre Amore, Lake Chelan, $16: Shane Collins went directly from Walla Walla Community College’s famed enology program to Tsillan Cellars in 2007, and he works magic with this blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewürztraminer. It opens with hints of alyssum and dusty rose petal, followed by Juicy Fruit gum, Golden Delicious apple and freshly laundered linen. Rich flavors focus on ripe orchard fruit and dried pineapple, and while there’s a touch of sweetness, it’s nicely balanced. (13 percent alcohol)
Tunnel Hill Winery 2012 Syrah, Lake Chelan, $30: Winemaker and documentary filmmaker Guy Evans continues to find success in transforming the family apple business to wine. This gorgeous Syrah from the south shore of Lake Chelan is beautifully balanced all the way through with nuances of spice, blackberry and dark chocolate. (15.1 percent alcohol)
Karma Vineyards 2010 Pink Bubbly, Lake Chelan, $40: Cornell grad Craig Mitrakul crafted this sparkling Syrah. Aged on the lees for 14 months, it begins with delicate aromas of strawberry and dried cherry with notes of toast and yeastiness. The mousse is frothy, making it fun to access flavors that hint at raspberry, pie cherry and early season strawberry. The bright mid-palate acidity and bit of tannin contribute to the mouthwatering finish of Rainier cherry. (12.7 percent alcohol)