MATTAWA, Washington – The Wahluke Slope is a dusty, often forgotten corner of Washington wine country. In reality, it is the backbone of the Washington wine industry, thanks to its consistently warm temperatures and ability to ripen grapes. Growers and accountants appreciate that this region typically withstands the Columbia Basin’s harsh winters quite well.
Established as a federally approved American Viticultural Area in Jan. 6, 2006, the Wahluke Slope is a 13-mile-wide gravel bar formed by the Ice Age floods. It is bordered on two sides by the Columbia River and has a grape-growing history that reaches back to the 1970s. Elevation ranges from 425 feet near the Columbia River to the 1,475 feet that are planted near the Saddle Mountains. Tribes in this area named it Wahluke, which translates to “watering place” and is pronounced as WAH-luke.
Because of its warm temperatures, it is well known for growing red wine grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec and Merlot. However, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Jones of Washington produce stellar Chardonnay via the Wahluke Slope.
The region is 81,000 acres in size and is home to nearly 10,000 acres of vineyards, having nearly double in the past decade. Because of its remote location, there are few wineries on the Wahluke Slope, but visionary growers such as the Milbrandt brothers, Dick Shaw and Tedd Wildman have helped produced a number of Washington’s most acclaimed wines.
Here are a few delicious examples of Wahluke Slope wines we have tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Beaumont Cellars 2015 Reserve Mourvèdre, Wahluke Slope, $39: Pete Beaumont, a longtime orchardist in North Central Washington, crafts his wines within the boundaries of the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley growing region near the town of Quincy. He pulls grapes from the Wahluke Slope thanks to his long-running relationships with growers such as Jones and Milbrandt, and red Rhône varieties thrive in this heat. Beaumont’s latest work with Mourvèdre captures a sense of Châteauneuf du Pape with its touches of meat, savory and brine behind the deep and delicious flavors of dark plum, fig and Swedish Fish candy. Spicy tannins and penetrating acidity make this an ideal pairing with pork ribs, lamb, duck and charcuterie. Beaumont also operates a tasting room in Woodinville.
Drink Washington State 2014 Groovin’ On Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope, $26: Brad Binko is a proud alum of Walla Walla Community College’s winemaking program, and he uses small additions of Cabernet Franc and Carmérnère to add complexity, finesse and Old World charm to this offering of cherry, vanilla and rose petals. Fine-grained bittersweet chocolate tannins and a pulse of huckleberry acidity make it easy drinking. Binko, a certified somm during his previous life on the East Coast, enjoys this with Chicken Parmesan.
Angel Vine 2015 The Cluster Fus, Columbia Valley, $28: Portland winemaker Ed Fus credits Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe fame in Prosser, Wash., for introducing him to Tedd Wildman, and the relationship with StoneTree Vineyard has been critical to the rise of Angel Vine. The Cluster Fus (rhymes with cuss) blend could be labeled as Mourvèdre (80 percent), however, Zinfandel and Primitivo play supporting roles, boosting the fruitiness of the profile that features blueberry taffy, cola and toast. It’s nicely juicy with pomegranate acidity, stretched by a nibble of blueberry skin tannins and picks up a finishing pinch of white pepper and lavender.
Fielding Hills Winery 2013 Riverbend Vineyard Estate Cabernet Franc, Wahluke Slope, $38: This bottling marked the 15th anniversary of the Wade family’s Riverbend Vineyard, and Lake Chelan winemaker Mike Wade’s latest expression with Cabernet Franc is charming with aromas of fresh-baked cherry pie, a fun hint of Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries, coffee, chalkboard dust and a sense of forest floor. Resolved tannins allow for black cherry and dried blueberry to dominate the smoothly textured palate.
Milbrandt Vineyards 2015 Pheasant Vineyard The Estates Late Harvest Riesling, Wahluke Slope, $25: Milbrandt brothers Butch and Jerry have helped turn the Wahluke Slope into a wine-producing region of worldwide acclaim, yet their work with Riesling often goes overlooked. This lot of Riesling was harvested on Dec. 16, leading to aromas of poached pears with honey, honeysuckle and powdered sugar. The resulting nectar is full-bodied, backed by caramelized pears, honey and lemon thyme, a blend of herbs and acidity to adroitly deal with the residual sugar of 13 percent. This earned the title of best dessert wine at the 2017 Cascadia International Wine Competition.
Stina’s Cellars 2013 Sémillon Ice Wine, Wahluke Slope, $65: Rosebud Vineyard, a historic 40-year-old site, is the breadbasket for Tacoma-area vintner Perry Preston. His dessert wine is aging beautifully with aromas of clove, orange peel and almond extract, backed by rich tropical flavors of papaya, mango and pineapple. A nibble of apricot peel and a wealth of acidity provide delicious balance the 23 percent residual sugar. This earned a gold medal at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition.
• Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.