During the past four decades, the Walla Walla Valley has earned its reputation as a top producer of red wines.
It’s a curious development because the region isn’t particularly well-suited for growing red wine grapes. In fact, it isn’t much warmer than the Yakima Valley, which is well known for growing white wine grapes. And because of the Blue Mountains, more rain falls in the Walla Walla Valley than just about anywhere else in the vast and arid Columbia Valley.
So why all the red wine? It has more to do with the pioneers. Leonetti Cellar is the oldest producer in the valley and made its reputation on red wine, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. That was followed by Woodward Canyon Winery, which in 1990 earned Washington’s first top 10 wine on Wine Spectator magazine’s annual top 100 wines of the world with the 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon. Later came wineries such as L’Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills Winery, Pepper Bridge and Walla Walla Vintners, all wineries with reputations built on red wine.
Today, of the 2,800 acres planted in the Walla Walla Valley, fully 95 percent of the vines are red varieties, leading with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. With the expectation of every new winery in the valley to produce stellar reds, don’t expect the red-to-white ratio to dramatically shift in the near future.
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Here are a few red wines made from Walla Walla Valley grapes that we have tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Balboa Winery 2013 Mith Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley, $55: This Left Bank Bordeaux-style blend marks the 10th anniversary of inaugural vintage for this partnership between winemaker Tom Glase and grower Tom Waliser. Cabernet Sauvignon takes the lead, yet the subtle influence of Cabernet Franc and structure from Merlot is profound. Aromas of toast, dark cherry, mint and bell pepper are backed by flavors of red currant, plum and black cherry with age-worthy tannins. This earned a gold medal at the 2017 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, the fifth annual scholarship fundraiser for College Cellars. (14.4 percent alcohol)
Flying Trout Wines 2013 Windrow Vineyard Block Two Malbec, Walla Walla Valley, $36: Block 2 is among the youngest plantings within the oldest commercial vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley, and Ashley Trout produced a stunning Malbec for the TERO Estates tandem of Mike Tembruell and Doug Roskelley. There’s a sense of The Rocks influence with hints of funk and minerality among the theme of blackberry, black licorice and chocolate. A tug of tannin merely provides framework for the finish of black currant and bramble. This earned a gold medal at the 2017 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.
Nox Perpetua 2015 Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley, $45: When Jason Fox struck out on his own after graduating from Walla Walla Community College’s College Cellars program, he made fresh whites the focus of Lagana Cellars and they immediately shined. The 2015 vintage marked the creation of his label for reserve-style red wines. Aromas of Marionberry and plum with fresh tarragon are realized on the palate with fine-grained tannins that slowly expand. An underlying dusty minerality and swirl of chocolate come through the finish of blueberry. Fox earned a gold medal for this at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition. (14.6 percent alcohol)
Pepper Bridge Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $60: Norm McKibben recruited Jean-François Pellet to the Walla Walla Valley with the goal of producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, which they’ve done since 1998. New French barrels leads to aromas of cocoa powder, black cherry and blueberry with dusty oak, but the hallmark is the finesse inside. Flavors of Chukar Cherry and black currant are backed by lush blackberry acidity and suave tannins. (14.6 percent alcohol)
Saviah Cellars 2013 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley, $30: Richard Funk, one of Washington’s top winemakers, pulls from three vineyards not far from his winery near Milton-Freewater, Ore., for this spicy, earthy and jammy Malbec that’s true to the variety. Dense flavors of plum and black cherry make for a juicy combination of sensations that wash aside the tannins. This earned a gold medal at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition. (14.9 percent alcohol)
Walla Walla Vintners 2014 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $30: Several of the Walla Walla Valley’s top vineyards, including Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills and Walla Walla Vintners’ estate Cut Bank, went into this marvelous Merlot. Aromas lead with chocolate-covered cherries, mint, plums and raspberry bramble. The palate is perfectly balanced between those elements of fruit, spice, floral and structure, offering vanilla and clove from the 15 months in French barrels. (14.2 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com