Driving in Yakima Valley, you see agriculture all around you. Apple, pear, cherry, and hops orchids surround the highways. Mt. Rainer is visible over rolling hills and various mountain ranges in the Valley. A few key facts about Central Washington State and Yakima Valley. Fact 1: 90% of organic apples in the United States come from Washington State. Fact 2: 40% of the world’s hops are grown in Yakima Valley. Fact 3: Central Washington State, and Yakima Valley in particular, has geographic characteristics that make it a prime location to grow wine grapes (okay, not quite a fact but a very good observation).
Traveling east from Seattle, you leave behind the rain, pass over the Western Cascade Mountain Range and meet sunshine. So much sunshine in fact, it is sunny over 300 days a year and it rains less than five inches a year, compared with an average of 25 inches in Napa Valley. This means wine growers can use very controlled irrigation with water from the Cascade Mountains. Couple that with layers of various silt loam and loamy sand soil due to a volatile history of volcanic eruptions, tectonic shifts, and ancient floods, and you have the makings for beautiful wine.
Owen Roe’s Estate Vineyards in Union Gap is the perfect example of how elevation, orientation to the sun, and soil can have an impact on wine growing. As we walked along the “loess” soil, I felt a bit like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Clouds of very fine dust wafted up. My brand new shoes suddenly were covered in a powdery volcanic soil. My fellow wine bloggers and I were poured a glass of the Owen Roe Union Gap blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The soft dust on my shoes tasted amazing in my glass (not literally, of course). Soft earthy tannins covered my tongue. Gorgeous. There is something magical about tasting the wine at the exact spot the grapes are grown (at sunset, no less).
We moved onto the next vineyard – also on the Estate but at lower elevation so it is a bit warmer and more suited for growing Cabernet Franc. The soil here is glacier with calcium silt rocks. The wine had a distinct mineralogy. And finally we tried the Syrah, grown in alluvial volcanic soil due to the Ellenburg Formations– the oldest of the soils. You could actually see the layers of soil on the side of the Vineyard. The wines possess signature acidity, and are balanced with earthy minerality. All three wines have a purity of fruit and are strongly terroir-driven with a restrained use of oak.
When I made it back to my hotel room I looked down at my shoes. Most of the dust had fallen away, but a trace remained and I suddenly was craving a glass of Yakima Valley wine.