Ancient Lakes Newest Northwest AVA
Washington State adds to its ranks of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) with the announcement from the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) that the proposed Ancient Lakes AVA has been approved, effective November 19, 2012. This brings to 13 the total of wine appellations in Washington.
Best known for vibrant white wines, especially Riesling, this emerging Washington wine country has a big future for red wines as well.
by Cole Danehower
The news that the Ancient Lakes AVA has been approved by the TTB is most welcomed by the hardy souls who have been farming grapes in this region for a very long time, yet only able to use the Columbia Valley AVA designation. Among the leaders of this group is Cameron Fries, owner/winemaker of White Heron Cellars, in Quincy. He has this to say about the official AVA approval:
“We’ve had wine grape growers in the Ancient Lakes area for 32 years now. There was never any question that this area is unique in its land-forms and weather. Having a distinct AVA rewards these pioneer grape growers by lifting them out of the huge Columbia Valley AVA and highlighting the characteristics of Ancient Lakes grapes. Whites retain their acid and bright aromatics. Reds also are higher in acid and tannin This makes wines that reward cellaring. The oldest wine in my cellar is a 1988 (the same age as my son) Pinot Noir made from Cave B grapes and each time I open it I’m astonished at the vibrant fruit ageing into spicy complexity.”
The Ancient Lakes have come a long way. It used to be common wisdom that you couldn’t grow wine grapes here—too cold, too dry, too difficult. And at first glance, why would anyone try?
In the dramatically sparse landscape of Washington’s Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA, scoured and scarred by the titanic forces of the ancient Missoula Floods, all that grows without human intervention is bunchgrass and sagebrush. And yet, despite the desolate beauty of its high windswept plateaus, sheer basalt cliffs, severe coulee drops, wine grapes are being grown here, and thanks to the attention of focused wine-farmers and winemakers, these grapes are producing some of the best-known wines in Washington and the Northwest.
“It has been said that for a vine to make good wine, it has to have a good view,” reflects Fries. “Vines here have spectacular views.”
White Heron’s vines, some of the oldest in the area, sit at the top of a bend in the Columbia River near the northern border of the proposed AVA, with vast southward views as the river traces the western edge of the Quincy Basin and the bulk of the appellation.
When the Ice Age Floods of 15,000-or-so years ago inundated the Columbia Valley, the waters swept across the Quincy Basin in their rush westwards, obliterating topsoils and defacing the land. At what is now known as the Ancient Lakes and the Quincy Lakes, the flood encountered a choke point as the elevation dropped rapidly toward the Columbia River. The force of the swirling, gushing, rampaging deluge hewed great troughs from the basalt bedrock, creating what we now call the Potholes Coulee.
On the north and south side of this scar in the earth, the Babcock Ridge and Evergreen Ridge, respectively, overlook this extraordinary feature at some of the higher elevations for vineyards in the state: 1,200 to 1,400-ft. It is on this high basin that the bulk of Ancient Lakes grapevines grow.
“All that was left after the floods,” says Jerry Millbrandt, who with his brother Butch own Millbrandt Vineyards, one of the largest growers in the new AVA, “was a layer of fine silt on top of broken caliche and fractured basalt. It’s very desert-y—it’s challenging enough to grow anything here, let alone grapes!”
Ryan Flanagan agrees. He’s the Millbrandt’s vineyard manager, as well as being part of Ryan Patrick Vineyards, who also own two estate vineyards in the Ancient Lake area. “It is difficult to grow vines here. We’re basically doing our best to grow them in rock, proving the old notion that poor rocky soils force vines to struggle and produce great fruit.”
The Millbrandts own two vineyards in the AVA (and a number of others in the Wahluke Slope AVA, due south of the Ancient Lakes): Evergreen Vineyard south of the Potholes Coulee, and Ancient Lakes Vineyard, north of the coulee. The soils are generally similar at each, and though their thinness challenges the growers, they also deliver the best benefit of all: great flavors.
“These unique soils give us great minerality in the white wines, plus the climate helps keep sugars low, acids high, and we get excellent flavor development,” says Jerry. “The wines are always racy and full of peach and apricot, never tropical like you can get in warmer places.”
Such characteristics in white wines, especially Riesling, have proven desirable for elite Washington winemakers. For example, the 2010 Eroica Riesling—the lauded wine resulting from the international partnership of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen—uses a goodly proportion of grapes from the Evergreen Vineyard. The artisan Efest? Winery’s well regarded Riesling merits the Evergreen Vineyard designation on its label, and the ever popular Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Charles Smith Wines is sourced from Evergreen Vineyard.
As a cooler region than most in Eastern Washington—the proposed AVA averages from 2500 to 2700 heat units—the acid retention and relatively slower ripening makes it ideal for white varieties, which account for the vast majority of Ancient Lakes grapes. But don’t count the reds out of it.
“It is true that this area is wonderfully suited for higher acid white wines,” says Alfredo “Freddy” Arredondo, winemaker at Cave B Estate Winery and Inn, “but we can grow reds and do a darn good job with them—though it is critical that you plant the red grapes in the right spot.” Freddy tells of a Cabernet Sauvignon block he had on the property that wouldn’t ripen consistently, while another Cabernet section a mere 150 yards away did great.
Indeed, it was the prospect of growing red grapes in a cooler area that first attracted serious winegrowers. Cave B owners Dr. Vince and Carol Bryan came to the region in 1980 to plant Pinot Noir, and proved that quality vinifera grapes could thrive—even if after awhile they moved away from Pinot.
“There’s tremendous variation in elevation, exposure, and air drainage that makes for big differences in frost-free days—and therefore which red varieties will grow in what spots,” explains Freddy. “We have Sangiovese growing on terraces at the Inn, closer to the river, and also on the plateau about a mile and a half away—and there’s a 45 day difference in frost-free days: that’s huge! Red grapes can grow well here.”
Cameron Fries also planted Pinot Noir at his Mariposa Vineyard, near Trinidad, Washington, in 1986 and has been making a Washington State Pinot ever since—though now he’ll be able to put some form of “Ancient Lakes AVA” on the label in 2013. “The expression of Pinot here tends to be more tannic and acidic—a bit brash. Lots of Washington customers have told me they hadn’t liked Pinot before . . .”
Other reds are prospering, albeit in small quantities. White Heron also grows Malbec, Grenache, Syrah, and Petite Verdot. Ryan Patrick Vineyards has Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc while Jones of Washington, a large grower expanding into the Ancient Lakes, is planting multiple red varieties. Cave B is successfully growing Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Barbera, along with the more expected Merlot and Cabernets. And even Pinot is being resurrected: Charles Smith released a 2008 Evergreen Vineyard-designated Pinot Noir that sold out quickly!
Cameron thinks the reds from Ancient Lakes in general show higher tannins and acids, plus a kind of terroir that comes from the nature of the local land. “If you don’t overdo the oak treatment, I think our red wines pick up subtle sagebrush flavors, like California wines can pick up eucalyptus.” The whites, of course, show great freshness, white fruits and citrus, and a noticeable minerality.
It is the distinctive nature of the wines—in combination with the distinctive landforms and climate—that motivated the application for AVA status, which Cameron Fries has helped spearhead, supported by many other growers, winemakers, and public officials throughout Eastern Washington. A year’s worth of waiting for approval is now over, and beginning after November 19, 2012 there will be a new Northwest wine appellation for consumers to become acquainted with.
Feature photo by White Heron Cellars.
Evergreen Vineyard aerial by Kirk Burpee, Ideas to Images Productions.
Adapted and updated from the November / December 2011 issue of Northwest Palate magazine.