In October of last year, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) awarded a group of authors approval for the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley appellation. Members of the authoring group, which included Dr. Vince Bryan of Cave B Estate Winery and Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars, hosted a small group of wine writers and wine commission staff for a more official unveiling in mid-May, which I had the pleasure to attend. Here are my thoughts.
Growing up in the Yakima Valley, and frequenting many of the sub appellations located within the Yakima Valley’s boundaries, I've become fairly well versed in the heat and dryness of our area. While Ancient Lakes shares some of those attributes, as both appellations reside within the Columbia Valley, it is also considerably different.
Ancient Lakes, located near the eastern Washington cities of Quincy and George, is divided into four distinct areas: The Benches, The Foothills, The Coulees and The Ridges.
The Benches are above the cliffs leading to the Columbia River and provide the best opportunity for red varietals, due to its southern face, elevation and proximity to radiant heat rising from the basalt walls. But the AVA (American Viticultural Area) is currently far better known for its cool sites for whites (80% of the area is currently planted to white varieties), with Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc leading the charge. The Ancient Lakes has been a hot bed of planting recently and currently has over 1,300 acres under vine.
The Foothills face south and are at a higher elevation than any other growing area in the AVA with Two Guns Vineyard at over 1,500 feet above sea level. This area is best suited for white grapes such as Riesling and Pinot Gris with no worry for frost.
The Coulees lie along the edges of Potholes and Frenchmen Coulees and generally have thinner soil. According to our hosts, the basalt cliffs on parts of the perimeter absorb heat during the day and release it at night preventing great temperature swings. The area is considered to be best suited for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Finally, The Ridges sit on the west side of the appellation and are over 100 feet above the basin floor. They are rich with basalt and caliche (hardened deposits of calcium carbonate) with the thin soils eroded by millennia of wind. The soil is compact and provides little room for water to reach the roots, causing the vines to work harder to survive and, some say, offering great minerality in the resulting wines. The Ridges are home to some of the best known and widely used fruit in the appellation, with Evergreen Vineyard Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc dominating the area.
Ryan Flanagan, vineyard manager for Milbrandt Vineyards and Ryan Patrick Vineyards, and Freddy Arredondo, winemaker for Cave B, provided the majority of the commentary on our tour. Their topics included the abundance of basalt and caliche, elevation microclimates and the Missoula Floods. It's truly amazing that these floods from approximately 15,000 years ago have such a drastic affect on the soil today.
For another perspective on the fruit from the new appellation, I spoke with Brennon Leighton, winemaker for Charles Smith Wines. Smith's Kung Fu Girl Riesling is sourced from Evergreen Vineyard located in The Ridges. While Leighton has been with Charles Smith Wines for less than a year, he's not new to Ancient Lakes, especially Evergreen Vineyard. When he was assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, one of the wines he worked on was the Eroica Riesling, sourced in part from Evergreen. At Efeste in Woodinville, he made Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Evergreen Vineyard.
When asked what draws him to Evergreen, or Ancient Lakes as a whole, Leighton replied, "It's a cool site. There's no other site that's quite as cool, which is important for acidity, and the soil is similar to the soil in Champagne and Chablis. It has tremendous minerality."
Leighton went on to say, "I feel they are world class vineyards. Evergreen and Two Guns are two of the best sites for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the world.” He said of the Ancient Lakes, “It's just an incredibly unique site."
I'm anxious to see Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley popping up on bottles across the state (the first AVA designated wines are already hitting the shelves). Once the region gains name recognition with consumers, I believe viticulturists and winemakers alike will explore the full potential of the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley.