Washington Wine Industry Still Growing

I realize I'm a recent import, but I'm just as delighted as a native to read the latest from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Even though we're at the start of what looks like a very bad economic era, the Washington wine industry is growing. Washington is second only to California in terms of U.S. wine production, and I'm hopeful to see Washington becoming more responsible for a lot more than the current roughly 4% of domestic wine production compared to California's 90%, or 523,000 acres. The number of wine grape plantings in Washington increased from 24,000 acres in 1999 to an estimated 33,000 this year. While that pales in comparison to the acreage in California, Washington wines are increasingly up to direct comparison, head to head (cork to cork?) with California. Washington wine now brings in $3 billion annually, from over 600 different wineries. Just ten years ago there were only 160 Washington wineries.

But the really cool news is that Washington will soon be home to 11 AVA's or American Viticultural Areas. AVAs are grape growing regions which are defined by geographic features, soil, and the grapes grown there as being unique, and therefore producing unique, notable wines. One of the more interesting facts about Washington and our grapes is that the state shares the same latitude (46ºN) as two of the most famous grape-growing and wine producing regions of France, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Lake Chelan will become the eleventh Washington AVA at the end of May. Latitude often equates with climate. Washington's other AVAs, or "appellations" as they're known are Yakima Valley, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Puget Sound, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Rattlesnake Hills. A couple of these AVAs border Oregon and function as "shared" appellations, but individual bottles usually indicate one state or the other, or they'll state that they used grapes from both. I note that there's a useful map here, with information about the wineries. Sounds like a road trip, or six, to me.

The numbers for varietals are changing too; currently, these are the major grape varieties grown in the state: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Lemberger, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Syrah. You'll notice an emphasis on red wines; that makes a lot of sense when you remember the shared lattitude with the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions; similar growing conditions for similar grapes. There's a much greater number of red wine grapes than white, in fact 57% to 43%, according to this site. Interestingly, that's a change—in 1993 white grapes were dominant, to the tune of 64% white versus 36% red. Also interesting is that increasingly Washington growers are experimenting with other varietals, though in much smaller quantities. These include Aligoté, Barbera, Cinsault, Dolcetto, Grenache, Madeleine Angevine, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Müller-Thurgau, Muscats (a variety), Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, Siegerrebe, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel. I suspect that explains, in part, some of the Washington blends I've been seeing, blends which seem to be very much inspired by Bordeux, Rhône, and even "super Tuscan" blends.

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