As much as any region in Washington, perhaps none is as famous as the Walla Walla Valley.
There are a number of factors, including history, reputation, quality and density of tasting rooms as well as natural beauty, culinary scene and overall vibe. With more than 130 wineries calling the valley home, Walla Walla is only rivaled by Woodinville in terms of options for wine tourists.
But with nearly 2,000 acres of vineyards in the region, it has become nearly as famous for its grapes as for its wines. And wineries beyond Walla Walla recognize this, buying grapes from the region for their own wines.
Thanks to the reputation of its pioneers, particularly Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No. 41, the Walla Walla Valley soon became known for its award-winning red wines. As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up over half of its production, and the region’s top six varieties are red grapes.
Here are a few wines using Walla Walla Valley grapes that we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Reininger Winery 2015 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $52: Last year, Chuck Reininger and his family celebrated the 20th anniversary of his eponymous winery in the Walla Walla Valley, and key components to the success during those first two decades were relationships with Norm McKibben’s Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards. Both came together for the 2015 Syrah, which seems on the similar track as the 2013 vintage that topped U.S. entries into the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards judging in London. There’s inviting bigness to the aromas of warm chocolate, blackberry and blueberry, which includes hints of leather and squid ink. Those black and blue fruit tones hit the tongue with jammy and juiciness that’s backed by slaty plum-skin tannins. The finish of French roast coffee makes for a long and compelling finish.
Walla Walla Vintners 2012 Vottavo Estate Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley, $60: A product of the classic and age-worthy 2012 vintage, William vonMetzger pays tribute to retired co-founders Myles Anderson and Gordy Venneri with this Super Tuscan-styled wine named Vottavo, an Italian reference to eighth — as in Walla Walla Vintners being the eighth bonded winery in the Walla Walla Valley appellation. The blend leads with Sangiovese (47 percent) and followed by Merlot (32 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the 1,500-foot Cut Bank Estate Vineyard that surrounds the iconic red-roofed barn along Mill Creek Road. This marks the first commercial vintage for Cut Bank, and it’s a heckuva debut.
L’Ecole No. 41 2014 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $36: One of the Pacific Northwest wine industry’s most famous plantings is Seven Hills Vineyard near Milton-Freewater, Ore., and Sadie Drury uses Salmon-Safe practices while farming it for her many customers and the ownership group, which includes L’Ecole No. 41. The latest Syrah is redolent of blackberry and plum with a wealth of acidity and restrained tannins.
Cerebella Wine 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $30: This bottling marks the second commercial vintage of Zimmel Unruh Cellars, the tandem of former Vancouver, Wash., neighbors Robb Zimmel, a combat medic who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Jon Unruh, a U.S. Marine. Zimmel moved to the Tri-Cities and graduated from Washington State University’s winemaking program in Richland in time to buy these Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from McB Vineyard in Lowden. It’s very cherry on the palate with classy notes of pencil shavings and gunpowder tea tannins, backed by happy pomegranate acidity, making for quite a crowd-pleaser. Suggested pairings include Italian fare as well as grilled asparagus with olive oil and a liberal sprinkling of black pepper.
Three Rivers Winery 2014 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $39: Holly Turner stayed in the Walla Walla Valley hills for this Syrah from Salmon-Safe Minnick Hills Vineyard, which gets a remarkable boost from Petit Verdot (7 percent) off Seven Hills. The nose offers dense aromas of blackberry, sweet blueberry and cocoa beans, which lead to delicious and dusty flavors of more purple fruit, backed by a lick of cherry candy.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com