Walla Walla onions…wheat…grapes???
Despite the fact that the Walla Walla area of Washington state has always been known for its onions and wheat, the vineyards now in the area have definitely made a home, a place where a grape can go beyond good and become great. While vacation enthusiasts and wine enthusiasts alike are enjoying an adventurous trip to Walla Walla, they may look around and marvel at the vastness of the eleven million acre Columbia Valley AVA, the high desert area established in 1984 where nearly 17,000 acres of vineyards are planted. The Walla Walla AVA (American Viticultural Area) is small enough to be actually contained within the much larger Columbia Valley AVA. Actually, there are seven AVA’s nestled within the Columbia Valley AVA. Along with Walla Walla Valley, there is Yakima Valley, Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope and lastly, the newest of the areas, Snipes Mountain.
The same enthusiasts that are enjoying their sightseeing adventure, may also taste some of the most stunning, elegant, ultra concentrated, award winning wines they will ever place in their mouths and wonder what makes the Walla Walla wines so amazingly complex and different?
You need more than just the passionate people that are involved in every facet of the grape growing and wine making industry to make these wines reach their potential. Although it’s very important to have passion in your craft, it takes more than passion to make a great wine. It takes money, hard work, long hours, artistic talent, money and oh yes, money. I know this because I too share the same passion with these people and have on occasion purchased the grapes to make wine myself. They are expensive because they have the “perfect” terroir.
Great wines start with the terroir of the region itself. Terroir isn’t just a French word for “soil” or “soil flavor” in the wine. It includes so much more than that. The soil by itself creates a good vineyard for a good wine. However, with the influence of the added geographic factors of this little area,( such as altitude, sun position, rainfall, wind, day and night temperatures, water drainage and hours of sunshine), “great” wines become possible.
The Walla Walla area terroir actually began about eighteen thousand years ago, with the great cataclysmic Missoula flood. During the flood, miles of top soil was dragged to this area and mixed with all the other geographic factors that make Walla Walla what it is today. It is a closed basin that extends about 30 miles from east to west in southeastern Washington state. This area has the Cascade mountain range to the west which acts as a rain shield, and to the north it is bordered by the wheat fields of the Palouse. The Blue Mountains stand rigidly to the east and supply water when needed. It only receives six to eight inches of rainfall annually and is a windy area. Because of the northern latitude it also receives about 2 extra hours of sunshine a day during the growing season than the vineyards in the Napa Valley. The area has warm days and cool nights. Sometimes a difference of 50 degrees in a single day is common. This anomaly helps the grapes retain their acid.
From one area to another, the soil content varies tremendously. One area of a vineyard may contain a huge gravel bar and next to it may be soil with fine silty layers. Because of the floods, massive amounts of alluvial deposits were carried to the area and precipitated to form the base of the soil. After the floods were over, for many years the winds picked up huge amounts of the lighter soils and layered them on top. Layered soils are usually very deep and well drained. Good soils for growing great grapes.
The deepest layer of soil in this area is mostly basalt, which is a dark dense to fine-grained igneous rock usually formed from volcanic magma. On top of the basalt there are layers of glacial sediment. Covering the glacial sediment is a brownish layer of clay, silt and sand called loess. Loess was probably carried and dropped by the winds. On the top layer of this soil there is usually volcanic ash, which was also carried there by the wind. The wind played a very important role in the development of the Walla Walla dirt.
Ultimately, the confluence of the protective Cascade mountain range, temperatures and sunlight conducive to near perfect growing seasons, and the integrity of the well drained soils allows the Walla Walla AVA to produce world class grapes and generate world class wines.