Yakima Valley became Washington state’s first AVA (American Viticultural Area) 30 years ago. It not only was Washington’s first AVA, but it was also the first AVA north of California.

AVAs are geographical wine-grape-growing regions in the United States. Their boundaries are defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and established at the request of wineries or other petitioners. Washington state currently has 13 AVAs.

The Yakima Valley appellation straddles the Yakima River and extends from Wapato in the west to Benton City in the east. The borders include the sub-AVA of the Rattlesnake Hills (established in 2006) to the north, the Horse Heaven Hills (established in 2005) to the south and Red Mountain (established in 2001) forming parts of its eastern boundaries. The Snipes Mountain AVA (established in 2009) also lies within its boundaries.

A long, illustrious history
Yakima Valley is the oldest and most diverse wine region in the state, with more than 48 wine varietals and more than 17,000 acres of vineyards planted. Currently, more than half of all of the wine produced in the state comes from the Yakima Valley.

The first grapevines were planted in the region in 1869 by French winemaker Charles Schanno. In the early 20th century, Seattle attorney William B. Bridgman pioneered the modern wine industry in Yakima Valley. Many of the vineyards established across the region were planted with Bridgman’s cuttings. One of the oldest vineyards that he established was Upland Vineyards, which has vines dating back to 1917. Upland Estates Winery was established in 1934.

Also in 1917, the Washington state Legislature passed an act setting aside 200 acres of desert near Prosser to become an agriculture research center. Today, it is known as the Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center and is jointly operated by Washington State University and the USDA. It is where Walter Clore, well regarded as the father of the Washington wine industry, was hired as an assistant horticulturist in 1937 and started experimenting with wine-grape growing. Research from the center would become vital to Washington’s wine industry.

Good samplings
At a recent luncheon where some delicious and diverse wines from the Yakima Valley were served was one of the most unique and memorable: a dessert wine from Upland Winery from the vines planted in 1917. It is the 2009 Ampeli Muscat Alexander Ice Wine. (Ampeli is a play on “ambeli,” which is Greek for “wine yard.”)

It was pretty darn amazing tasting a dessert wine from the oldest cultivated vines in the state. The flavors were that of apricot, white chocolate and lime. At $32 per 375 ml bottle, it is a bargain, compared to other ice wines.

Another interesting wine was a Lemberger from Thurston Wolfe ($16 per bottle). Grown in Washington state since the 1970s, it produces a fruity, full-bodied wine with moderate tannins, that pairs with a wide range of meat and seafood dishes. Thurston Wolfe's 2011 Lemberger is from the Crawford Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. While not that unique of a grape varietal, Syrah does well in Yakima Valley, especially Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow Vineyard, where the first plantings of Syrah in the state occurred.

The Syrah from Red Willow that was served at the luncheon was Efeste’s Eleni Syrah, which is a wine-club-member-only wine.

Also served, the Betz Family Winery La Serenne Syrah from Boushey Vineyard was unique in its texture and finesse, nice and smoky on the nose, with great complexity. There are only 39 acres planted to Syrah in Boushey, and the vines are planted on the hillside with rocky and impoverished soils.

Three other wines at the luncheon included an old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon from Kestrel Vintners and a Cabernet blend and a Riesling from DuBrul Vineyard. The old-vine Cabernet from Kestrel was amazing. The current release is 2008; it had two years in the barrel, followed by two years in bottle before release.

Both of the DuBul Vineyards wines were incredible. The 2004 Côte Bonneville Red (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) had great finesse. The small berries and small clusters concentrate flavors of blueberries, black currants, bright cherries and sweet plum, with soft silky tannins.

The Riesling, done in an off-dry style, had a great texture, with a great balance of fruit, acidity, alcohol and residual sugar. The flavors were citrus, peach and stone fruit.
So open up a bottle of sparkling (Treveri Sparkling Cellars makes this, as well) to celebrate Yakima Valley’s birthday, and best wishes for many more!

JEFFREY DORGAN, the Washington Wine Commission’s 2009 Sommelier of the Year, is the wine director at the Space Needle. To comment on this column, write
to  QAMagNews@nwlink.com.