A Columbia River Guide for Wine Lovers

 Bridge I-205 over Columbia River, the seventh-longest river in the United States

© Shutterstock


 Bridge I-205 over Columbia River, the seventh-longest river in the United States

© Shutterstock

1. Ancient Lakes

The vast Columbia Valley AVA encompasses almost all the vineyards of Washington State, but the last couple of decades have seen the creation of numerous sub-regions, each with their own distinctive geography and wine style. One of the youngest of these AVAs, created in 2012 is Ancient Lakes, which sits on the river’s east bank near the town of Quincy. Higher elevation sites and shallow limestone soils have enabled this region to forge a reputation as a top spot for particularly vibrant white wines, especially Riesling.

You may think you’ve never tried any Ancient Lakes Riesling, but in fact these grapes are behind two particularly high profile, internationally popular Washington State wines. Eroica, a joint venture between Mosel star Ernie Loosen and WA giant Chateau Ste Michelle, sources its fruit here. Likewise, if you’ve encountered Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Charles Smith Wines, then you’re more familiar with this area than you thought.

2. Wahluke Slope

About 30km further downstream on the same, eastern side of the river lies another young AVA that is busy gaining a strong reputation. Wahluke Slope stretches gently uphill from the river to about 450m altitude. Conditions across this sub-region are remarkably uniform, characterised by deep, sandy soil and often windy conditions which encourage smaller, more concentrated grapes. This AVA also offers a prime example of the arid conditions that characterise eastern Washington State. Seattle may be only a couple of hours’ drive away, but the coastal city’s 37 inches of average annual rainfall compare rather dramatically with the meagre six inches that vineyard managers in Wahluke Slope would expect.

If Ancient Lakes has built its reputation on Riesling, Wahluke Slope majors on ripe, full-bodied red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Much of the fruit grown here is in demand by the state’s largest producers for blending into more generic, Columbia Valley wines. However, the creation of a specific Wahluke Slope AVA in 2006 has encouraged more wineries here to focus accordingly. Milbrandt Vineyards is a particularly pioneering name to look out for.

3. Yakima Valley

As you reach the Tri-Cities area, two major tributaries flow into the Columbia River: the Snake River and the Yakima River. The latter is well worth a detour as the state’s oldest AVA and home to some of the most established, highly regarded wineries in WA. Tucked inside a bend in the Yakima River near Benton City, you’ll soon come to a small but prestigious sub-region, Red Mountain. This was the site chosen for Col Solare, a joint venture between local giant Chateau Ste Michelle and Tuscan legend Antinori. Another top name to track down here is Hedges Family Estate. Few producers in Washington State do a better job of harnessing the ripe, concentrated fruit here into red wines of genuine finesse.

But this isn’t just red wine country. Cooler sites in Yakima Valley are home to considerable quantities of white grapes, the best of which combine voluptuous fruit with tingling acidity. Look out for Lobo Hills’ Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

4. Horse Heaven Hills

The early European settlers here were clearly captivated by the suitability of this land for rearing horses, but it’s turned out to be a pretty good place to cultivate grapes too. Sandwiched between the Yakima and Columbia rivers, the warm slopes of Horse Heaven Hills are home to around a quarter of Washington State’s total vineyard area. But it’s not just a case of quantity: this AVA also yields several of the state’s most highly regarded wines.

Top producer Andrew Will Winery sources Horse Heaven Hills fruit for its rich yet structured flagship Bordeaux blend, Sorella. If you’re more of a Rhône fan, then keep an eye out for the wines of WT Vintners. Their Destiny Ridge Vineyard “Gorgeous” Syrah comes from vines perched high on a hill overlooking the Columbia River. It’s hard to tell whether the “Gorgeous” tag relates to the wine or the view.

5. Columbia Gorge

It’s almost impossible to generalise about the identity of what must be one of the world’s most dramatically diverse single wine regions. Covering a 40 mile/64km stretch of the Columbia River between Goldendale and Hood River, the Columbia Gorge AVA straddles both Oregon and Washington State. Float past its steep-sided basalt cliffs, with snow-clad Mount Hood looming in the distance, and in a very short time you’ll be transported from a desert, continental climate to one that is distinctly maritime and even sub-alpine. As the landscape transforms before your eyes, remember that average annual rainfall here rises by roughly one inch per mile travelled west.

With such an extreme climatic contrast, it should come as no surprise that Columbia Gorge embraces a staggering range of styles from Albariño to Zinfandel and just about everything in between. Open your mind and dive in. Why not start with the Galicia-inspired white Godello blend and red Mencía from biodynamic producer Analemma. Another local star is Idiot’s Grace, whose vineyards dotted across the AVA on both sides of the river allow for a portfolio that swings from honeyed, high acid Chenin Blanc to delicate, fragrant Dolcetto and then far warmer climate varieties such as Grenache and Primitivo. If it’s all starting to feel too confusing then take the easy route and book a table at Hood River restaurant Celilo, whose extensive list of local wines is matched by dishes created with prime Pacific Northwest ingredients.

6. Portland

Sprawled around the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, Portland isn’t technically a wine region. That said, there’s a vibrant urban winery scene here to (almost) match this city’s famously prolific craft brewery community. Few places in the US can rival Portland’s street food offer either, so slip on some comfy shoes and take yourself on a gastronomically themed stroll.

With more than 25 city wineries to choose from, crushing grapes sourced from all over the Pacific Northwest, there’s a style for every mood, weather and occasion. If you think Riesling rocks then don’t miss Teutonic Wines, whose range is inspired by the founders’ love of Alsace and the Mosel. For bolder reds with a Bordeaux slant, head for Seven Bridges Winery.

Of course, you don’t have to visit a winery to enjoy Portland’s wine scene. Encouraged by Oregon’s relatively relaxed alcohol laws that permit corkage and allow retail outlets to serve wine and food, this is a city packed with shops, bars and restaurants – often a hybrid of all three – with local wines often taking pride of place.

Park Avenue Fine Wines is a prime example. For a blowout fine dining experience, book a table at Le Pigeon, or alternatively opt for its more casual sister venue, Canard, next door. More recently the same team has opened Le Flor wine shop in downtown Portland. Whichever route you choose, if you leave town without letting your belt out a notch then you’ve almost certainly not explored hard enough.