By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
July 17, 2014
Walla Walla Valley AVA has a fascinating geological history. A subset of the Columbia Valley AVA of Washington State, this area was inundated by a series of catastrophic floods — the Missoula Floods — at the end of the last ice age 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. The Walla Walla Valley was scoured and then received a massive amount of gravel and fine silt that when dried and blown by the wind resulted in loess — a very fine mineral-rich soil that covers most of the valley today in depths from a few inches to many feet. Other parts of the valley — specifically the new proposed AVA The Rocks at Milton-Freewater — are so rock strewn with rounded orange to grapefruit-sized stones that walking is difficult. Growing anything in this area defies rational thinking but fruit trees and now grape vines are thriving there with spectacular results for some wineries.
Pat recently attended the “Celebrate Walla Walla Valley The World of Syrah” event in Walla Walla to learn more about this little known wine-making area that is making some amazing world-class wines. Walla Walla wines frequently appear on several respected wine publications’ top 100 lists and a search of wines scoring 90 points or more find Walla Walla Valley wines outscoring their public perception.
One winemaker grumbled at a dinner/tasting overlooking the Walla Walla AVA that the beautifully crafted $40-$60 wine red wine blends we were tasting would cost $100-$150 per bottle if the labels read Napa Valley instead of Walla Walla Valley. We would be hard pressed to disagree, but don’t feel the wine world needs more $100 plus wines.
The Walla Walla Valley is a paradise for agriculture, as evidenced by the wide variety of crops that dominate the landscape. Fruit trees of all types, alfalfa, wheat, and corn are just a sampling of what thrives in the loamy soils. However, there are two big problems. The area is a virtual desert with less than 10 inches of rain per year. The rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains divides the Washington state into the frequently rainy western portion and the desert-dry eastern portion of the Columbia Valley.
The Columbia River, however, provides irrigation to those with water rights with the water needed for agricultural crops. The other problem is peculiarly difficult to grape growing. Every 6-8 years bitter, well below zero temperatures, roar down from Canada and plunge temperatures to as low as 15-20 degrees below zero, killing grape vines back to the ground.
Walla Walla grape growers have adapted by allowing a shoot from their ungrafted vines to grow from the soil level of the plant, and then burying the shoot in the soil before winter, giving the grape vine a chance to survive the brutal temperatures. Growers above 1,200 feet are able to avoid this labor-intensive requirement.
During our visit to Walla Walla Valley we visited a number of vineyard areas. One of these was the Upper Mill Creek area where one of the original four founding wineries of the Walla Walla AVA (recognized in 1984) grows grapes.
Leonetti Cellars is an award-winning producer of some of the highest rated wines in the country that amazingly are unknown to many wine drinkers. Leonetti produces wine from this area along with a`Maurice, Tempus Cellars, and Walla Walla Vintners.
Chris Figgins, Leonetti’s winemaker and son of founder Gary Figgins, schooled us on the advantages of growing grapes in the Mill Creek area. Two significant advantages are the 1,200-foot elevation, which protects grapes against the periodic wintry blasts from Canada and the 18-22 inches of rainfall they receive due to their proximity to nearby mountains, negating the need for irrigation.
Chris explained that although phylloxera is not present — allowing for ungrafted vines to grow in Walla Walla Valley — “sooner or later we will get it”. He also spoke about the low amount of harmful insects and said that he believed “because we are a young grape growing region, pest pressures are very low”.
We tasted a number of wines from grapes grown in the Mill Creek area and found them to be fruit forward and in a balanced elegant style that we especially enjoyed. The a`Maurice Estate Red Walla Walla Valley 2010 $47 is a delightful Bordeaux blend that is rich, smooth and harmonious. The Walla Walla Winery Estate Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2011 $40 exhibited bright fruit and distinctive black pepper notes. Figgins Estate Red Wine Walla Walla Valley 2011 $85 was made from all Bordeaux varieties and was very round, smooth, and complete. An intriguingly complex nose started it all off. Last year’s 2010 version of this wine earned 97 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.