Led by pioneering Washington wineries such as Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon, Walla Walla Valley quickly launched itself into stardom, more than 20 years ago. But although the AVA was formally recognized in 1984, there were barely 60 acres of vines in the entire valley, and most of those were located in Oregon. The AVA total acreage is 322,794 with 31% in OR and 69% in WA.
True Walla Walla wines were few and far between until the mid-1990s, when substantial new plantings at Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge and a few other sites began to provide grapes to the growing number of boutique wineries. Today, as the winery population now exceeds 100, there are just under 2000 bearing vineyard acres.
The Walla Walla Valley AVA is a subset of the Columbia Valley, and spills across the border into Oregon. It is roughly diamond-shaped, with the Blue Mountains forming a cup-like eastern border around the valley, which broadens and flattens as it opens to the west. Distinctive and very different micro-climates have begun to emerge and it seems very likely that the appellation will be meaningfully subdivided in the not-too-distant future.
The valley is defined by its geologic past … and the impact it has on the present. At the conclusion of the most recent Ice Age, much of Eastern Washington experienced the largest basaltic lava floods in geological history. The floods “backed up” into the Walla Walla Valley, depositing rich silt and scattering huge boulders, called “erratics.” Though the majority of vineyards are irrigated, this is one of the rare places in Eastern Washington with the potential, in at least a few sites, to be dry farmed. Walla Walla’s outstanding winemaking community has forged a well-deserved reputation for its Syrahs, Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons. The grapes are often included in a single blend, a sort of super-Wallan red. Some excellent Sangiovese is also grown, along with scattered, tiny plots of exotic grapes such as Counoise, Carmenère, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Barbera.
Many Walla Walla wineries purchase grapes from other Columbia Valley appellations, but when Walla Walla grapes are used exclusively, the region clearly demonstrates not just one, but several distinct and excellent terroirs.
~ Paul Gregutt