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Northwest Wine: Wahluke Slope forms backbone of Washington wine industry

The Columbia River and Highway 243 rings the Wahluke Slope American Viticultural Area to the south and the west. This growing region, which includes the town of Mattawa, is one of the warmest spots in Washington state.
The Columbia River and Highway 243 rings the Wahluke Slope American Viticultural Area to the south and the west. This growing region, which includes the town of Mattawa, is one of the warmest spots in Washington state. Washington State Wine Commission

Follow the Columbia River up through the middle of the state, and you’ll run into the Wahluke Slope, an 81,000-acre American Viticultural Area that serves as the backbone of the Washington wine industry.

Approved as an official AVA by the federal government in 2006, the region has long been home to vineyards. Today, about 9,000 acres of grapes are grown on the 13-mile-wide gravel bar, which is a remnant of the Ice Age floods of some 12,000 years ago. It vies with Red Mountain as the warmest region in Washington wine country and can always be counted on for ripe syrah, cabernet sauvignon and grenache. Plantings by the Milbrandt brothers, Tedd Wildman and those at Weinbau Vineyard lead to some of the state’s most decorated bottlings.

Here are some delicious examples of Wahluke Slope wines we have tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Limited Release StoneTree Vineyard Syrah, Wahluke Slope, $36: Red winemaker Brian Mackey signed off on this dense and opulent syrah. The barrel regimen of 58 percent new French oak yields aromas of heavy toast, dark-roast coffee and white chocolate on top of black cherry. On the rich palate, dark berries take the lead with blackberry and blueberry flavors amid a pleasing structure of chocolaty tannins and juicy acidity.

Desert Wind Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope, $18: The Fries family of Duck Pond Cellars fame in Oregon also owns Desert Wind Winery in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser. While the listed American Viticultural Area is defined as “Washington,” the fine print reveals the grapes came from the Wahluke Slope, where patriarch Doug Fries grows grapes. The result is an elegant drink that shows off aromas and flavors of blackberry and black currant, with a hint of nutmeg and cardamom.

Ginkgo Forest Winery 2013 Cabernet Franc, Wahluke Slope, $30: Mike Thiede, who operates a tasting room in Tacoma, grows his fruit and makes his wine near Mattawa. This delicious cab Franc is another example of his recent series of successes. Aromas of cedar, red currant and black cherry lead to flavors of blueberry, dried herbs and intense cherry. Underlying tannins provide the perfect amount of structure.

Jones of Washington 2014 Estate Chardonnay, Wahluke Slope, $14: Using grapes from the Jones family estate, Victor Palencia continues to show his skills as one of Washington’s finest white wine producers. This opens with intriguing aromas of lemon bar and orange zest, followed by flavors of crisp lime and lemon, all backed by elegant acidity that gives way to a lengthy finish. Enjoy this with grilled salmon or baked chicken.

Milbrandt Vineyards 2013 Northridge Vineyard The Estates Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $45: Northridge Vineyard is one of nine Milbrandt sites throughout the Columbia Basin and perhaps the most prized among the company’s six plantings on the Wahluke Slope. The wine carries tones of dark blue fruit tannins akin to plum skins mix with bright acidity to make for a mouth-filling drink, capped by black olive, pepper and dark chocolate, making for an easy and long trail to the finish. Enjoy with grilled salmon.

Ryan Patrick Vineyards 2013 Northridge Vineyard Reserve Grenache, Wahluke Slope, $35: This late-ripening red grape has no trouble finishing up on the Wahluke Slope. Jeremy Santo, a native of Prosser and product of Washington State University, builds aromas of Almond Joy with Bing cherry and black pepper. The creamy mouth feel brings flavors of black cherry, boysenberry and bittersweet chocolate.

Tamarack Cellars 2014 Cabernet Franc, Wahluke Slope, $30: Ron Coleman is closing in on 20 years of winemaking in the Walla Walla Valley, and he’s focused his Cabernet Franc on historic Weinbau Vineyard. Aromas of dark cherry, black currant, blueberry and French oak vanilla spice carry into a suave mouth feel of black currant, elderberry and blueberry. Fine-grained tannins and raspberry acidity are capped by a touch of chocolate with a pinch of mint.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.

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