Coping with climate change, Washington is reaching to the sky with high-altitude vineyards on Red Mountain and elsewhere, and pioneering new styles of wine.
As producers and winemakers in Washington continue to explore the boundaries of what is possible for viticulture in the state, a number are looking in a new direction: up.
“Historically, if you go way back in Washington, you needed to be at a lower elevation in order to get the heat units to ripen fruit,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner/managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley. “With overall global warming, you’re now seeing harvest starting in August, which was unheard of 25 years ago. All of the sudden, having vineyards at higher elevation makes sense.”
Two factors in particular make higher-elevation vineyards intriguing in Washington: soil and temperature. Most of eastern Washington’s vineyard soils are defined by the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic events 15,000 years ago that left gravelly deposits with layers of sand and silt on top. However, some higher elevation vineyards—those at least 1,200 feet above sea level—remained above the floods, and therefore have a different soil composition.
“It was a challenge to get a handle on what might be farmable, because it was on the top of Red Mountain, and doggone it, no one had ever done that.”
—Ryan Johnson, vineyard manager and partner, WeatherEye Vineyard
“To me, the lower sites tend to be early ripening, kind of simple wines,” says Brennon Leighton, director of winemaking at Wines of Substance. “Above the floods, you have everything from caliche to basalt to chalk to a mixture of those. The higher you go, you get more complex wines and more minerality.”