Washington's youngest wine region is one of its most beautiful to visit and also is producing exciting wines.
Lake Chelan, in northcentral Washington, has long been a summer tourism destination for families wanting to frolic in the country's third-deepest lake. The region also was famous for its apple industry, which was hit hard in the 1990s by China's increasing apple production.
Then in 1998 a few wine grapes were planted along the shores of Lake Chelan, and plantings have now grown to 250 acres.
In 2009, the federal government approved Lake Chelan as an American Viticulture Area, and more than 15 wineries are now operating in the region. All are within a few miles of the cities of Lake Chelan and Manson, so touring the area is as simple as heading to the south or north shores of the lake.
What differentiates Lake Chelan from more traditional Washington wine regions is its well-established hospitality. Because the region has been a tourist destination for a century, adding a wine industry has been fairly seamless for its residents.
Many amenities already are in place, including quality lodging, restaurants, transportation and activities. In fact, five wineries in Lake Chelan also have on-site restaurants, which is rare elsewhere in the state.
Because wine grapes have been grown in Lake Chelan for less than 15 years, winemakers still are figuring out what will be their signature varieties. So far, riesling, gewrztraminer and viognier are showing well in white wines, and malbec, tempranillo and pinot noir are making their mark with reds.
Ather varieties also are doing well, and many wineries also bring in grapes from elsewhere in the vast Columbia Valley.
If you are looking for wine country destinations this year, consider a weekend in Lake Chelan. You will taste some delicious wines, eat some great food, enjoy stunning views and meet some great people in this young and emerging region.
Here are a few wines we've tasted recently that use grapes from the Lake Chelan AVA.
Lake Chelan Winery 2009 Stormy Mountain White, Lake Chelan, $18: Huge aromatics of pink grapefruit, passion fruit, guava and vanilla emerge from this blend of viognier, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, riesling and chardonnay. Sweetness stays ahead of acidity on the palate, where it's orange, lemon cream and Brach's vanilla creme filled caramel.
Benson Vineyards Estate Winery 2008 pinot noir, Lake Chelan, $23: The Benson family has created quite a destination winery on the north shore of Lake Chelan, and is producing some superb wines. This rare Washington pinot noir opens with aromas of coffee and bright red fruit, followed by flavors of plums, espresso and cherries.
Mellisoni Vineyards 2009 riesling, Lake Chelan, $25: Young vines overlooking the south shore of Lake Chelan created an off-dry riesling with notes of baked pear, diesel, lemon/lime, candy corn and a finish akin to an Arnold Palmer iced tea.
Hard Row to Hoe NV pinot noir, Lake Chelan, $30: Winemaker Judy Phelps blended the 2008 and 2009 vintages to create a rare Washington pinot noir, all from grapes grown on the south shore of Lake Chelan. This opens with aromas of plums, raspberries, leather and earth, followed by flavors of strawberries, black cherries and blood oranges.
Tsillan Cellars 2007 Barrel Select syrah, Lake Chelan, $28: Darker accents of dusty plums, cola, cordial cherry, dates and moist earth gather up enjoyable acidity and get a late grab of tannin.
Wapato Point Cellars 2008 Clos CheValle Vineyard Reserve pinot noir, Lake Chelan, $32: High above the south shore of Lake Chelan on Bear Mountain is the 100-acre Clos CheValle Vineyard, where winemaker Jonathan Kludt got the grapes for this wine. It opens with aromas of cherries, vanilla and minerals, followed by flavors of strawberries, pie cherries and cinnamon. It's a smooth wine with bright acidity and well-integrated tannins.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.