This Episode's Region

Columbia Valley

Columbia Valley

Though the mere mention of Washington is sure to conjure images of the Space Needle and rainy days, the Columbia Valley actually gets an average of 2 more hours of sunlight a day than California’s Napa Valley. Huh?

While it’s true that the area of the state to the west of the Cascade Mountain range is perpetually wet, chilly, and gray it’s the rare rain cloud that makes it to the other side. This other side, the Columbia Valley, makes for a wonderful place to grow wine grapes - generally on the drier side with plenty of hot days, chilly nights and an extensive system of rivers that act as helpful temperate moderators.

The Columbia Valley is widely known for its hot-blooded grapes; Syrah thrives in Walla Walla, Merlot and Cabernet in Yakima Valley. Chardonnay is also widely planted throughout the valley and you’ll find a smattering of Riesling

Though they may grow the same grapes as their peers down in Napa, the winemakers of Columbia Valley tend to make very different wines with them. This is especially true when it comes to Chardonnay.

Where California’s Chardonnays tend to be big, oaky, and indulgent, the wines of Washington’s Columbia Valley are much more focused on fruit and can seem almost stark in comparison at first taste.  Crisp clean flavors of ripe apples and a streak of minerality tend to mark Columbia Valley’s Chardonnays. Bright, bracing acidity and tight structure hold up wines that are treated with a lighter hand and less oak.

That’s not to say you won’t find Chardonnays from Columbia Valley made in the California style – there are plenty to go around. There are two big important differences though: the soil and the vines grown. Columbia Valley lies across wide swaths of sandy loam while Napa’s Valley floor is made up of sedimentary gravel and clay. Also, the vines grown in Columbia Valley were grown and engineered at UC Davis to take longer to ripen in the valley’s long hot growing season. Napa’s vines, on the other hand, are generally clones from prestigious vines in France.

For more on Columbia Valley Chardonnay, click here.

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Tasting Notes From This Episode

• Grapes were first planted in Washington at Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1825. By 1910, wine grapes were growing in many areas of the state, following the path of early settlers. For more information on Washington wines visit www.washingtonwine.org

• Washington produces more than 30 wine grape varieties; the four most widely planted varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling. Columbia Valley, which represents a full third of Washington State’s land mass, contains 99% of the grapes grown in the state.

• Chardonnay, the most consumed varietal in the United States, is one of the most widely planted grape varietals in the world.

• DNA testing has shown Chardonnay to be the descendant of two different grapes: the obscure Gouais Blanc, also known as Weißer Heunisch (thought to have been brought by the Romans from the Balkins) and the popular Pinot Noir.

• Chardonnay vines are hardy, easily cultivated and not prone to disease. The grapes are often called “malleable,” because they reflect the unique characteristics of their terroir and wine maker.

• The color of Chardonnay is highly variable, it can be pale straw-yellow, pale yellow with a greenish cast, bright lemon-yellow, or amber, described as “golden.”