Monday, June 10, 2013

The Brutish Beginnings of the Yakima Valley AVA and Washington Wine

Fire & Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. 
-Robert Frost
(The Yakima Valley AVA is producing a "Master Class" on the AVA and so is sending out lessons throughout 2013 to celebrate their 30th Anniversary. What follows is my take from Lesson 1 on the region's geology which they titled Fire & Ice.)

From where the Yakima Valley AVA stands, Frost is a real killjoy. Rather than the end of the world, it's the beginning of some really fine wines they'd say.

"Great wine is made in the vineyard." Hang around any winemaker for more than about 45 seconds and inevitably you'll hear this mantra. And, point of fact, there's no debating it.

What you never hear though is "Great vineyards are made in a fiery hell on earth." Not sure why this utterance is never muttered nearly as much but in the case of the Yakima Valley AVA and frankly most of Washington Wine country, it's equally true.

As the Yakima Valley AVA celebrates its 30th Anniversary we're more concerned with it's 15 Millionth Anniversary. Today the Yakima Valley is one of Washington's many beautiful scenic treasures, from the rolling hills, the views of Mt Rainier and Mt Adams and the winding Yakima River. Back in the day, and by that I mean like 15 million years ago, it wasn't nearly as pleasant. You could say it was downright inhabitable. Luckily, there were no humans. (Also, if you're a Creationist, sorry to blow your mind here.)

Molten lava flowed from giant cracks in the earth's crust. blanketing the area in thousands of feet of basalt rock, much of which was to become the Columbia Basin. Additionally the Cascade Mountains, a volcanic range let us not forget, was covering the region in ash and lava. The original rivers of the area, including a predecessor of the Columbia carried these ashen and rock filled soils throughout the region, as well as bringing in rocks and boulders from outside the region. It was like Mordor for Pete's sake. Add to that some serious tectonic plate movement and earthquakes and the land is getting smashed and sculpted into ridges and basins, evident today in the form of the Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills and the path of the Columbia River.

All of this hot mess is followed by the ice age, which means, uh, ice. Oh, and repetitive cataclysmic floods of the Glacial Lake Missoula. So, add to all those layers of volcanic deposits, the sedimentary soils carried by these floods suddenly you start to see a magical diversity of geology soil types. Sprinkle it all with pixie dust, or loess, which is a wind blown soil that has accumulated through the Valley over the millennia.

The result is an austere kind of soil, rocky, sandy, not much going on organically in these soils. Because of  all the grainy components, the rocks and sand, it doesn't hold water well. It's also largely free of pests which makes it possible to grow wine on their "own roots" as the expression goes as opposed to grafted to root systems that are more pest resistant. Additionally the roots have to work hard and go deep to get to water, so hardworking roots mean hard working vines, the thinking in wine growing is that when vineyards have it too easy they produce boring, unremarkable wines that lack character.

The wines of Yakima Valley being quite the opposite, the Yakima Valley AVA believes that their special soils are a major contributor to their ability to create some of the finest wines in Washington state. And that one of the hallmarks of Yakima Valley wine, be it from Boushey, Red Willow or Upland Vineyards is a purity of varietal character. So, a Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Franc as it should be, when you have soils like this there's nothing going on below to muddle it. To emphasize that point I was sent three excellent examples of Yakima Valley, single varietal wines (except for a dash of Viognier).

2008 Delille Doyenne Syrah
This Syrah with just a touch of Viognier for co-fermentation comes from Grand Ciel, the Delille estate vineyard on Red Mountain and Boushey Vineyard. (The Viognier is from Ciel du Cheval) all within the Yakima Valley. It's an opulent Washington Syrah, aromas are gamy, along with dark fruit and black licorice. The wine is well put together, nary a hint of the alcohol being north of 15 %. Flavors of dusty, ripe black cherry, gamy meat and black pepper. $44

2009 Chinook Wines Cabernet Franc
Perhaps the prettiest red wine in Washington year to year, the Chinook Cabernet Franc is done in a Loire style, rather than a brawny tannic Cabernet Franc you get soft and elegant. The fruit comes from a collection of Yakima Valley vineyards including Boushey, denHoed and their own Chinook Estate.  An emphasis on neutral oak in production results in an emphasis on fruit and floral aromatics, the palate is lots of red fruit and a freshness. $24

2011 Sauvage Sauvignon Blanc
Wow, now this is a white wine to be proud of. A departure from their well known, and personal favorite of mine, the Feral, this Boushey Vineyard sourced Sauvignon Blanc still has great acidity but it's got more layered mouthfeel and a greater sense of depth given the time spent on lees. Less angular and a touch softer than the Feral it's aromatics emphasis stone fruit and a bloom of sweet flowers. Wet stone and citrus flavors with a lingering weight to them and a zip of acid make this Sauvignon Blanc reminiscent of those from New Zealand, only better cause it's Washington. $20


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