What makes an AVA?

On the advent of the Northwest’s newest appellation, Cole Danehower discusses the process and elements  that made The Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley the newest Washington State wine appellation.

The idea of wine appellations itself is ancient: Roman and Greek commentators noted how some places were better for winemaking than others. The French system of appellation d’origine contrôlée not only defines specific growing regions, but also growing techniques, standards, and wine quality.

The American system of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), while loosely based on the French model, only defines specific geographies where grapes are grown; there is no element of wine quality or character explicitly involved in the process of AVA designation. All that is technically required for an AVA are that the area have a recognized historical name, the boundaries can be delineated on USGS maps, and that the climate, geology, and topography explicitly differ from surrounding areas. Even a history of grape growing is not a requirement.

Nevertheless, Northwest vintners take the intent of the AVA process to mean defining places whose climate and geology produce wines of distinctive character. And so it is with the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley: this proposed appellation differs from other AVAs in its climate, soils, topography—and wines.

Because it is tucked up so close to the Cascade Range foothills, the area is one of the driest in the state and the air has low moisture content, helping keep rot and mildew away and enabling longer “hang time.” The soils are predominantly loamy silts, but there is interesting variability, more than in the nearby Wahluke Slope—including pockets of volcanic soils and areas of caliche, hardened calcium carbonate that is thought to impart a desirable minerality to wines.

The topography also can be variable. While the upland basin area of the AVA offers uniform gentle slopes, it also has lots of deep swales and basalt outcrops that challenge growers but also creates a variety of expression in the grapes. And deep changes of elevation along the western edge of the AVA, make for excellent air drainage that helps reduce frost risk and extend ripening.

All of these elements are technically required for AVA designation, but for wine lovers, the vital thing is that the they also result in wine character that is distinctive to the Ancient Lakes area: vibrant, minerally whites, and savory reds with healthy backbones.

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