Such Great Heights: The Upper Reaches of Washington Wine

Often experts recommend exploring wine regions by tasting the separate American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Break down Sonoma by tasting through Green Valley, Alexander Valley, and Chalk Hill. Or learn the nuances of the Willamette Valley by tasting the Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, and the Yamhill-Carlton District. Tasting by elevation, however, can provide an equally informative and persuasive experience. Instead, taste a regions vineyards at over 1200 feet of elevation, and then a few at 600–800, and end with a tasting of 300–400 foot sites. While the soils and exposures always change from vineyard to vineyard, elevation’s role proves equally provocative.

Aerial view of Walla Walla Vintners — courtesy of Walla Walla Vintners

Within Washington’s Columbia Valley, elevation plays a crucial role in both vine health and wine style. Winter temperatures around 0° F can kill Vitis vinifera, the species of European grape vines we hold dear for quality wine internationally. Washington winters frequently drop below this temperature, and elevation proves vital to vineyards’ survival. Cold air pools in low pockets, and so sloping, higher elevation sites wick away the coldest air on these otherwise deadly evenings.

Equally as important, elevation exacerbates the diurnal swing during the growing season (the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures), concentrates the sunlight, and leads to sparser, well-drained soils. The large diurnal swings create wines with the lauded yin-yang tension of ripeness and freshness, flavor density and buoyancy. The heat of the day builds sugar and flavor, while the cool evenings retain the acids necessary to provide balance and poise. Slopes also efficiently harness the power of the sun, plus, the sun’s rays strike more intensely at higher elevations. Finally, slopes at elevation always have sparser soils, as water and elevation have cooperatively pushed loam top soils to lower elevations. Rocky, low fertility soils remain.

The highest elevation vineyards in Washington currently rest between 1400–1675 feet of elevation. Drawing the line between what constitutes high elevation and moderate elevation requires subjectivity. Within Washington, I’ll defend that any site above 1200 feet qualifies as high elevation.

Elephant Seven Yellow Bird Syrah

Starting in the southeast corner of Washington, and also the northeast corner of Oregon, the Walla Walla Valley AVA boasts a well-regarded list of elevated vineyards. A newcomer in Washington winemaking, Elephant Seven Winery produces their Yellow Bird Vineyard Syrah from vines at 1400 feet in the Blue Mountains of the AVA. Thanks to the dry-farming practices and low fertility, these vines struggle immensely, and produced a stunning, elegant Syrah as a result. The elevation comes through immediately through the wine’s color, a dark ruby rather than inky purple. Flavors and aromas of blackberry, tar, spice, and peat give way to a mid-weight palate with structured, firm tannins. Walla Walla has quickly garnered the world’s attention for quality Syrah, and the higher elevation sites show very well for those seeking more refined examples, especially during hot vintages like 2014–2015.

J. Bookwalter Winery pulls from a different corner of Washington’s growing region for their high elevation Syrah. Elephant Mountain Vineyard rests in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, a sub region of the Yakima Valley. Farmed by Joe Hattrup, the vines grow between 1340–1460 feet of elevation. Hattrup cites the wide diurnal temperature swing as one of the distinctive factors in Elephant Mountain Vineyard wines. The cool evenings combine with an extra 2–4 weeks of hang time compared to most other vineyards thanks to the delay of first frost, ultimately allowing for flavors to develop slowly and profoundly. The 2014 J. Bookwalter Antagonist Syrah from Elephant Mountain shows deep purple with brooding aromas of leather, tobacco, marshmallows over campfire, blackberry, and plum sauce. While rich, the palate avoids flabbiness, instead giving way to ripe, smooth tannins with well-proportioned acidity. J. Bookwalter has crafted a fine example of Washington Syrah here, striking a balance between hedonistic and lean, elegant expressions.

A short drive northwest leads to one of Washington’s newest growing regions, Naches Heights. With only 39 acres planted to date, the rapidly warming present and future will certainly create demand for more vines thanks to the 1200–2100 feet of elevation within this relatively small geographic area. Naches Heights Vineyard and Winery produces small lots of many varietals. The 2014 Riesling, a steal at $10, demonstrates the great potential here with compelling aromas of petrol, lime zest, and grapefruit singing harmoniously. This semi-sweet Riesling contains contrapuntal tension that seamlessly weaves smooth weight and zinging acid. This is a noteworthy wine at a price point that feels like robbery. Bring on Thai or Indian dishes!

Walla Walla Vintners estate and winery in southeast Washington — courtesy of Walla Walla Vintners

Founded in 1995, Walla Walla Vintners has rightly earned a reputation for quality. I’ve long been smitten with their Merlot, and the 2013 rendition of their Walla Walla Valley Merlot leaves little doubt that they’ve proven themselves a regional leader with the varietal. Deep ruby fills the glass followed by captivating aromas of spiced plum, fresh blackberry, graphite, and slate. Ripe fruit joins the poised palate, which deftly balances depth and weightlessness. The mid-palate gives way to clear, structured tannins and well-integrated acidity. This wine has already developed nicely with additional aging potential through 2023+. Make sure and schedule a visit if in the area, though don’t wait to travel before enjoying a bottle.

Walla Walla Vintners estate vineyard on a picture perfect eve — courtesy of Walla Walla Vintners

From such great heights as these, the wine curious can expect bottles with verve and soul — wines that carry the tension necessary to stand above the crowded masses of mono-dimensional, simple juice. Take note of elevation, and then raise a glass to the story of place.