Walla Walla’s White Wines

The name Walla Walla supposedly translates to “many waters,” but it’s more likely to be “waters waters” than “many many.” Or perhaps Walla Walla was interpreted as enough water for everyone, no water rights needed for the many.

The Walla Walla Valley has the right dirt, “many waters” and abundant sunshine to support this particular agricultural bounty. Even when Washington was still a territory, grape cultivation and winemaking were part of the growing economy as early as 1876.  In 1882, there were 27 saloons in town, selling jugs of wine and shots of cheap whiskey, in a town of 4,000.

Alas, the burgeoning wine industry was cut short when the Northern Pacific Railroad bypassed Walla Walla. Their ability to sell their wines to other markets was severely hampered.  And to further constrict the industry, in the freeze of 1883, temperatures fell to 20 below, grape vines were damaged and production was dramatically reduced.

It would be almost 100 years before grape production began to ramp back up again and put Walla Walla back on the world wine map.

In 1977, Leonetti Cellars opened its doors and received wide acclaim in the ensuing years. After putting in a few harvests at Leonetti, Rick Small opened Woodward Canyon in 1981. Next, in 1983, Jean and Baker Ferguson opened L’Ecole No. 41, Eric and Janet Rindall’s Waterbrook released their first vintage in 1984, Patrick Paul in 1988, Canoe Ridge in 1993, Glen Fiona and Walla Walla Vintners in 1996.
And wineries just keep opening. Today, there are around 77 wineries in downtown Walla Walla, at the airport, on the east and west sides and south into Oregon. Walla Walla is one of three AVAs whose footprint is in both Washington and Oregon.

For the past dozen years or so, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance rolls into Seattle. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the winemakers, wines and wineries.

Forty-nine big and small wineries poured new releases and old favorites. Best known for its powerful reds such as Cab, Merlot and Syrah, Walla Walla also boasts a smattering of other red grapes – Malbec, Mourvèdre, Carménère, and Tempranillo.

Having tasted many of these big, rich reds and looking to explore the path less traveled and the tables less crowded, I sought out and sampled the sprinkling of whites, both the usual suspects and then unusual grapes such as Albariño, Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Marsanne.

A longtime acquaintance who also happens to be a sommelier was there tasting these wines with me. We did the usual comparing to Old World wines with more thumbs up than down. It was a great wine-geeky moment for me.

Abeja is probably my favorite Walla Walla Chardonnay because it’s so well balanced. Which means not overly oaked, and not a fruit bomb either. It could easily tie with another favorite Walla Walla Chardonnay – Woodward Canyon’s. And, of course, Waterbrook’s for a nicely balanced and so affordable wine.

Abeja sourced its 2015 Chardonnay from Celilo and Conner Lee Vineyards as does Woodward Canyon. Kissed with new and used oak for nine months, the balance between fruit, acids and alcohol is perfect.

Abeja’s talented winemaker, John Abbott, honed that balancing act while working for the Canoe Ridge. He’s crafted many harvests for Abeja until the 2016 vintage. His time is now devoted to Pinot Noir under his own label, Devona.  Look for it. It’s going to be great.

Taking over the winemaker duties are the husband wife team of Daniel Wampfler and Amy Alvarez Wampfler. Both started out at Columbia Crest where they met. Wampfler moved to Dunham Cellars in 2008 when they were a 15,000 case winery. Dunham now produces 30,000 cases a year.

In 2010, the Sinclairs hired Alvarez-Wampfler as winemaker at their 1,500 case winery. Sinclair Estate’s 2014 Columbia Valley Chardonnay is aged sur-lie for a year, giving an added dimension to the wine. It’s on the oaky side, having spent a year in 25% new oak. For my palate, I’d give it a year to mellow out.

At Tranche, their Blue Mountain Vineyard is sustainably farmed and the low yield harvest produces intensely flavored fruit. Their 2013 Chardonnay, also from Celilo Vineyards, has a beautiful tropical fruitiness with juicy crispness that makes this wine a great candidate for fish, chicken and that other white meat. Please pass the béchamel. The new French oak was held to a minimum 5% for 18 months. It’s ready to enjoy now.

Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s most versatile and food friendly wines out there. It was widely planted in Washington State’s teen years but Cab, Merlot and Syrah which command higher prices, have changed that.  But there are still old vineyards out there that produce some amazing Chenins from dessert to bone dry.

One is Waitsburg Cellars, which has two versions of Chenin Blanc both from the 2015 vintage. The Cheninnieres is a play on the distinctive, dry Chenin produced in the Savennieres appellation in the Loire Valley where Chenin Blanc is widely planted.

This wine has wonderful pear notes with a hint of herbs on the nose and the palate. It finishs more than off-dry, making it a perfect accompaniment to cold smoked trout with a mustard sauce.

Also located in the Loire Valley is the well-known and well-loved Vouvray, a totally different style from the Savennieres. This wine has sweet, peachy flavors and residual sugar of 3.33%.  The beauty is the acidity that balances the sweetness to keep the wine refreshing. Curried shrimp would definitely be the greatest match for this little sweetie.

Trust 2014 Riesling was enchanting, with its diesel nose. Perfectly mimicking a controlled German Riesling, balance and all with 11.6% alcohol and 2.2% residual sugar. It’s another candidate for that curried shrimp dish.

The Caderetta 2015 SBS is worthy of another glass or two. SBS is short for Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, the traditional white Bordeaux blend. The wine crisp, herbal, citrusy aromas and flavors are the result of 89% of this wine fermented in stainless steel. Pair this with your next herbed vegetable dish, roasted pepper hummus or a Caesar salad and you’ll see.

Caderetta is owned by the Middleton Family, who began planting their estate vineyard in 2008. Seven Hills Vineyard is adjacent to this vineyard and has some of Washington’s finest wineries using their grapes.  In addition to the SBS, they produce Cab, Syrah, and red blends

Well, it’s been a pleasure recapping this tasting. Tastings are such a great opportunity to learn so much about the wines that you like. Remember to smell and taste. Then decide if it’s a keeper or not. It’s really just that simple. You like it or you don’t like it and you move on.

Your next opportunity for tasting Washington wines is at the mother of all Washington wine tastings, Taste Washington. Over 100 wineries, tons of restaurants serving little bites and seminars for more in depth wine knowledge in case you’re sitting for the sommelier test. Cheers!

Mary Earl has been educating Kitsap wine lovers for a couple of decades, is a longtime member of the West Sound Brew Club and can pair a beer or wine dinner in a flash. She volunteers for the Clear Creek Trail, is a member of the Central Kitsap Community Council and a longtime supporter of Silverdale.

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