Yakima Valley is a large agricultural region in Washington State that has been growing a wide range of fruit for almost two centuries. One fruit has increasingly been wine grapes. Yakima Valley was Washington State’s first wine AVA and today is its largest one.
Although wine grapes have been grown here since 1869, they only accounted for a small percentage of the valley’s total agricultural production until about 20 years ago. Today it has almost 100 wineries and more than 18,000 acres of grapes grown on some of the state’s oldest vineyards. Its grapes account for almost half of the state’s total wine production growing a wide range of varietals, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon (which accounts for more than 60 percent of planted vines), Merlot, and Chardonnay. It also produces Riesling, Syrah, and others.
Yakima Valley’s Grape Growing Environment
The Cascade Range which forms Yakima Valley’s western border creates a rain shadow that reduces the amount of rain the area receives to about 5-8 inches annually. Thus wineries need to provide some form of irritation.
But what it lacks in rain, it exudes in sunshine. It has about 300 days of sunshine a year, which is two more hours per day of sunshine than Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Yakima River to the east helps moderate the heat. When the sun goes down, temperatures plummet. The resulting large “diurnal shit” preserves the acidity of the grapes and allows the vines to rest before another day of intense berry growth.
The valley, however, is large enough and its growing conditions are so diverse as to justify the sub-appellation (Yakima Valley is under the broader Columbia Valley AVA) being divided into several of its own individual sub-appellations (or sub-sub-appellations). Each has its own unique soils and weather patterns that are suited to different combinations of grape varieties and imparts different characters into its wines. The following sections discuss several of these sub-appellations.
Red Mountain AVA
Red Mountain is Washington State’s smallest and warmest grape-growing region. Grapes were first commercially planted here in 1975. The area was designated as a wine AVA in 2001. Today, grapes are planted on 57% of the 4,540 acres of the warm, dry 500-1,500 foot high mountain.
Red Mountain is known primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon (for which winemakers pay premium prices), Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese.
Soil is mostly gravelly, alkaline, sedimentary soil as a result of floods at the end of the last ice age. The area grows small grapes with high skin-to-juice ratios. This results in powerful, structured, tannic, but well-balanced reds.
We sampled Red Mountain wines at several wineries:
- Hedges Family Estate where we enjoyed two Columbia Valley whites (2019 CMS Chardonnay and 2020 CMS Sauvignon Blanc), and three Red Mountain reds: a 2017 DLD Syrah and two Bordeaux-style blends, a 2018 HFE Red Blend that was about one-third each Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a combination of Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot. Our favorite was a 2018 HFE Cabernet-dominant blend with 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small percentages of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot.
- Hightower Cellars where we enjoyed its 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (with 7 percent each of Petite Verdot and Malbec) and especially its 2018 Merlot (with 9 percent Cabernet Franc) and our favorite, a 2017 Cabernet-based Reserve with 87% estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 13 percent Merlot.
- Hamilton Family Wines has been making wine since 2005 but its Red Mountain estate fruit didn’t show up until its 2016 vintage. We enjoyed several of its wines including its 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (from Lodi CA grapes) and three of its reds, a 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2007 Merlot, and our favorite, a 2016 Lowell-Lee Tribute wine for U.S. soldiers that was 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 17% Cabernet Franc, 13% Merlot, and 3% Petite Verdot. We particularly enjoyed a 2015 Weinbau Cabernet Franc from Januik Winery’s Columbia Valley and Hamilton’s 2014 Red Mountain Malbec.
- Col Solare Winery, where we found the 2017 Shining Hill Red (57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 11% Merlot and 4% Carmenere) second label wine to be a bargain at $40. We also enjoyed two of the winery’s premium wines: a 2017 Collector’s Society Cabernet Franc and our favorite, the 2018 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon (with 3% Cabernet Franc).
- Fidelitas where we found its 2018 Quintessence Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon to be quite promising. We especially enjoyed its 2019 Red Mountain Malbec which came from three different vineyards each of which also has vineyard-designate offerings.
One winery that we wish we had visited, but were unable to get to during its open hours was Terra Blanca, whose Cabernets, Merlots, Syrahs, and blends were highly recommended by two vintners. But this gives us yet another reason to return to Yakima Valley and to Red Mountain.
Rattlesnake Hills AVA
Located southeast of Yakima, the Rattlesnake Hills AVA was designated in 2006. It consists of a series of hills (dubbed “rattles”) of between 850 to 3000 feet. The AVA’s roughly 30 wineries have planted over 1,800 acres of vines along the hilltops and ridgelines which benefit from the hill’s cooler temperatures, breezes, and drainage.
Aligned around the small town of Zillah, it is still the home of many of the state’s fruit orchards, as well as some of its most prized vineyards. It is home to some of the valley’s and the state’s oldest vineyards. Even many of those premium wineries that do not have their own Rattlesnake Hills presence do offer Rattlesnake Hills and vineyard-designate wines—primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Syrah plus whites including Chardonnay and Riesling.
Our efforts to visit several Rattlesnake Hills wineries were, unfortunately, severely constrained by our uninformed decision to visit on a Sunday that happened to coincide with Easter! Several of the wineries that we hoped to visit were closed for the day. But we did manage to find a few open ones.
- Bonair Winery provided a very good illustration of several of the region’s Bordeaux varietals. Although we enjoyed the 2018 Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, we were especially impressed by the Merlot and Petite Verdot. And for a sweet (6.6 percent residual sugar) finale, you must check out the 2020 Late Harvest Riesling.
Two other stops provided an indication of the ways in which several other wines take to the Rattlesnake Hills terroir.
- Paradisso del Sol grows varietals including Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and even Lemberger. While the winery does offer a few single-varietal wines, most of its offerings are blends. Among those that most suited our tastes were the 2014 Rojo Paradisos blend of Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel and two very different combinations of Riesling and Semillon (a dry B’s Blend and an Angelica MRS late harvest dessert wine which includes a bit of black Muscat).
- Tanjuli Winery is the most recent startup of a serial vintner who, after working for several California wineries, started one in Montana and two others in the more agreeable Washington climates. After beginning with a crisp, dry 2018 Estate Picpoul, we went on to several reds including a Pinot Noir (which appears to have no business being grown in Yakima), to a few that were somewhat more conducive to the valley’s conditions including Italian varietals from very different parts of the country: A 2014 Estate Nebbiolo and a 2017 Estate blending of equal parts of Aglianico and Sagrantino.
Horse Heaven Hills AVA
This AVA, in the southern corner of Yakima Valley, was supposedly named for the grasses that horses loved. Planted with grapes in 1972, the low-elevation (300-1,000 feet) region was designated as a separate AVA in 2005 and became the source of the state’s first three 100-point wines.
It is now home to more than 30 Yakima Valley wineries and has more than 10,000 acres under cultivation. Producing about one-quarter of the state’s grapes, it is especially known for its Cabernet Sauvignon (specifically Clone 8) and other Bordeaux varietals from which its wineries make many varietals and blends that are more similar to the wines of Bordeaux than they are to those of California.
While a number of the tasting rooms were unfortunately closed on the Easter Sunday we had unwittingly visited, we did still manage to taste the wares of several of the region’s wineries—a number of which grew or sourced grapes from nearby regions.
- 14 Hands Winery, so named for the size of the region’s mustangs, grows three whites (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio), Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, and all primary Bordeaux varietals. Contrary to our predilections against Rose, we liked its crisp, Merlot-based 2019 Reserve Rose. We also found several reds that we thought to be nice representatives of the region: a light 2017 Reserve Cabernet Franc, 2018 Reserve Merlot, and 2018 Reserve Tempranillo. We also enjoyed the 2017 Limited Release, port-style Red Desert wine. But with all of these, our preferences were for three of the winery’s 2017 Reserve reds—the Merlot, the Cabernet Sauvignon, and not too surprisingly the Cabernet/Merlot/Malbec/Petite Verdot-based red blend. And don’t let us forget the 2019 Late Harvest Viognier desert wine. This stop provided several of our favorite Yakima wines.
Although we also intended to sample the wines of VanArnam Vineyards, this too fell victim to an Easter Sunday closing,
Candy Mountain AVA
Candy Mountain is the smallest (815 acres of which 110 are under vine) and the newest (2020) of Yakima Valley‘s AVAs. It was created by an upfolded ridge of volcanic basalt topped by a shallow layer of soil that stresses the vines and forces them to sink deep roots. The top layer soils are rich in minerals, with feldspars, iron, magnesium, and large chunks of calcium-caked gravel and calcium carbonate (called Caliche) that retains moisture and reduced the need for irrigation.
Known primarily for red varietals, only a few wineries currently grow fruit on the mountain and it is home to only one winery: Kitzke Cellars.
Here we tasted several Bordeaux and two Italian (Nebbiolo and Sangiovese) varietals primarily from its Candy Ridge Vineyard. While we found the 2016 Cabernet Franc to be pleasant, our tastes gravitated primarily to 2016 Sangiovese and two blends: the 2018 Jamison Reserve (75% Sangiovese, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc) and our favorite, the 2015 Reserve Bordeaux blend which consists of 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 28% Merlot and 3% Petite Verdot—all of which were selected from the wineries best barrels and co-fermented.
Prosser Area Wineries
Prosser, while not a designated AVA, is the effective birthplace of the Washington wine industry. It was home to and site at which horticulture professor and state-designated Father of the Washington Wine Industry Dr. Walter Clore did much of the research that led to the creation of the Washington wine industry. It was the site of the industry’s first plantings and as one of the Yakima Valley’s major commercial centers, Is now home to more than 30 Yakima Valley wineries including 12 in Vintner’s Village that are within walking distance of each other.
Although the area is best known for its Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Syrah, the city’s wineries appear to believe that anything can grow in the region. A chart prepared by the local wine bureau that maps each varietal by winery shows a total of more than 40 varietals including those from Portugal east to Austria and from northern Germany to southern Italy.
And for those who want to learn more about the state’s wine industry, it is now home to the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center.
While many of the wineries we hoped to visit were closed during our ill-planned Easter Day visit, we did taste at a few of the city’s wineries, especially some of those in the several square-block Vintners Village complex.
- Milbrandt Vineyards grows 25 varietals, primarily in the Wahluke Slope AVA and we tasted (and generally enjoyed) many of them. Among our favorites were the 2018 Ravenscraft Vineyard Malbec and several of the 2018 “Butch” (named or the winery owner) Blends. These included the Italia-themed Gabbro (Sangiovese, Primativo, and Barbera), the Le Sacre Rhone-style GSM, and the Bordeaux-like The Cratonic (primarily Malbec and Merlot).
- Ryan Patrick, owned by Milbrandt (which is owned by Chateau St. Michelle) sources wines from sustainable growers from across the state and creates (typically blends) their own wines from them. Our favorite of these was the 2019 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, a nicely balanced wine from Rattlesnake Hills fruit. It posed a nice contrast to Millbrand’s 2017 Northridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which we tasted side-by-side.
- Desert Wind, like Milbrand, grows most of its grapes in the nearby Wahluke Slope AVA—with the primary exception of its Sauvignon Blanc, which is grown in Horse Heaven). We particularly enjoyed several of the winery’s Bordeaux-based wines—the 2017 Heritage Series Merlot, the 2016 Sandstorm Zephier Right bank-inspired blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, and Carmenere), and the not-quite Bordeaux combination of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon snd other Bordeaux grapes. This said, we also have a favorite with the 2018 Tempranillo. We admired the effort, if not actually the execution of the winery’s attempt to create a Portuguese-style wine (2016 Last Call), a blend of Touriga Nationale and Tinto Cao).
But Wait, There’s More
So much wine and so little time. We found some very nice wines in Yakami Valley but to fully explore the area, we needed more time than we had. And we needed to not visit on a holiday weekend. For example, we ended up tasting only one Chardonnay from Ancient Lakes AVA and were unable to stop at any wineries from Naches Heights, Snipes Mountain or the brand new Royal Slopes AVA. Nor did this trip bring us back to the Columbia River Gorge (although some Yakima wineries offer wines from Columbia River Valley. We did, however, visit several Columbia Valley wineries and taste its wines on another trip.
We hope to return again in the new future.