Walla Walla: A Primer

Posted on Aug 30, 2017

Washington Wine countryWithin the larger Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (“AVA”), sitting at its southern end and straddling the Washington/Oregon border sits the Walla Walla AVA. Roughly 57% of its area is in Washington with the balance in Oregon. AVAs are delimited by homogenous soil and climatic characteristics and ignore political boundaries. But Walla Walla is the only AVA that crosses a state border.

Washington wine country

Vineyards in Walla Walla [photo credit: Visit Walla Walla]

“Walla Walla” is an indigenous person’s name meaning “many rivers”. The Columbia River runs through it as do many of its tributaries. The region is primarily an agricultural one growing significant quantities of grapes, apples, strawberries, asparagus, wheat and onions. Within the AVA are a diversity of soils, elevations and micro-climates that bring their own subtle influences to the Walla Walla style. Walla Walla sits at 46 degrees north latitude, the same parallel that cuts half way between Bordeaux and Burgundy. At this latitude the growing season averages over 13 hours of daylight, about 2 hours more per day than the Napa Valley.

walla walla washington

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Washington [photo credit: Great Northwest Wine]

Two aspects of Walla Walla’s geography are very significant to its grape growing. The first is the Cascade Mountains which lie to the west and shelter Walla Walla from the cool, wet influence of the Pacific Ocean. The second is its elevation, which varies from 400 to 2,000 feet. Together, these two influences create a dry summer growing season characterized by hot days and cool nights. Fully ripening grapes, a problem in many vintages in Burgundy and Bordeaux, is seldom a problem for Walla Walla. Most parts of the AVA are extremely dry and require irrigation for grapes and other crops. At the western end of the AVA, annual rainfall averages just 7 inches, making it technically a desert. The eastern reaches will get triple that. But throughout the AVA there are large swings in diurnal temperatures. Day time temperatures during much of the growing season will be in the 90s and even in the 100s but at night the high desert air can cool down into the 50s. The result is grapes that fully ripen under the hot sun but retain their natural acidity from the cool evenings. This gives the wines’ structural components (acids and tannins) similar to those found in the Old World. But the ripe fruit creates a New World flavor profile and this New World fruit on Old World structure is a Walla Walla signature.

The soil structure in Walla Walla is a result of the Missoula Flood that some 18 million years ago dragged soils to the area. The Flood deposited various types of sediment (silt, sand and gravel) on top of the black volcanic bedrock known as Basalt. After the Flood, the winds whipped up the soils and over the years covered the glacial sediment with a brown layer of clay, silt and sand. Wind deposited soils are known as loess (usually pronounced as “luss”). These soils provide good drainage and adequate nutrients for healthy vines that do not produce too much vigour.

Washington Wine

2003 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon

Grapes were first planted in the area around the time the town of Walla Walla was settled in the mid 19th Century. But severe winter cold and frost, which seemed to hit the area in an extreme fashion once every decade or so, killed off the vines and the crop was eventually deemed as unsuitable for the area. In 1980 Gary Figgins formed Leonetti Cellar in the AVA and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. Planted in the right areas, and tended properly, the vines could withstand the freezes. Leonetti prospered and has gone on to become one of the US’ most sought-after wines, sold to a select few retailers and restaurants and to a mailing list of purchasers that has since been closed. The waiting list has a back log of 3 – 4 years. In 1981 Woodward Canyon Winery was formed just down the road in Loeden by Figgin’s childhood friend, Rick Small. In 1983 Marty Clubb formed L’Ecole No. 41 in the old Loeden schoolhouse. In 1984 Walla Walla was recognized as an official AVA. Each of these wineries, which were the founding fathers of the Washington wine industry, are thriving today and have justly earned reputations for producing some of the country’s top wines.

Washington Walla WallaIn 2015, the region of The Rocks at Milton-Freewater, which sits on the Oregon side of the border within the Walla Walla AVA, received its own designation as an AVA. The Rocks, as its name implies, is covered with bare basalt stones, similar to the galets roules found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or the cobblestones found in much of the vineyards of Toro, Ribera del Duero and Rioja in Northern Spain. These stones heat up during the day and reflect that heat back on to the vine in the evenings, helping to ripen the grapes. The roots must grow deep to find adequate moisture and this helps to develop character in the grapes.

aMaurice Owl Label

The 2010 aMaurice red blend “Night Owl”

Today the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance lists 68 members. Many other wineries located in Woodinville and other parts of Washington buy Walla Walla grapes and truck them outside of the AVA to be made into wine. The AVA covers 322,794 acres of which 2,964 are planted to vineyards. The major grapes grown in the Walla Walla AVA are Cabernet Sauvignon, with 41% of the planted area followed by Merlot (26%), Syrah (16%), Cabernet Franc (4%), Sangiovese (2%), Chardonnay (2%) and Viognier (1%). Other varieties make up 7% of the plantings. Less than 5% of total plantings are to white varieties.

Washington Wine

2001 Woodward Canyon Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon

As previously stated, a characteristic of Walla Walla wine is New World fruit on top of Old World structure. Expect Cabernet Sauvignons that strike a balance between Napa’s lush fruit and Bordeaux’ more austere complexity. Merlot, which does extremely well in Walla Walla, is as big as its Cabernet, a brawny and broad shouldered version of a Pomerol. Syrah, which seems to be the up-and-coming variety in the region, is often vinted in a full-throttle style that emphasizes the lush, black fruit characteristics of the grape, perhaps more akin to a top quality Barossa than a Hermitage.

Walla Walla AVA has in its short 33 years been able to put itself on the vinous map as a top region. Certainly recognized by the wine press, it has not yet fully developed its reputation within wine consumers at large. The result is excellent wine that is still sold at very fair prices and tasting rooms that are not crowded nor given to charging large fees. In our view it remains as one of the lesser discovered gems of the wine world.

Highly recommended wineries in Walla Walla include:

àMaurice Cellars                               Maison Blue

Forgeron                                             North Star Winery

Cayuse                                                 5 Star

Leonetti                                               Rasa

Woodward Canyon                           L’Ecole No. 41

Dusted Valley                                    Long Shadows Vintners

K Vintners                                          Figgins


  1. professormerlot@gmail.com'

    Great article. Couple of details is like to add on to the Walla Walla AVA which covers two states which is also a characteristic of the Columbia Gorge AVA of both Washington and Oregon and the newly formed Lewis and Clark AVA of the states of Washington and Idaho. The Leonetti Cellars 1978 Carbernet is considered by most the first Washington wine that grabed the international attention of quality for Washington wineries.

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    • Thanks for your comments, we recently interviewed Chris Figgins, winemaker at Leonetti and not only is it one of our favourite wineries, he happens to be a genuinely awesome guy. Cheers to a fellow WA wine fan!

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  2. tommo_73@hotmail.com'

    Great read! Love the detail. Didn’t realize such good wine was so close to home!

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    • You’ll definitely need to start trying Washington wines, excellent quality and relatively undiscovered. Cheers!

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  3. Robin@Crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    How interesting that the first varieties to be planted in the 80’s were Cabernet and Reisling. I have not explored the wines of this region and it’s time to change that.

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    • Robin, you would love this region. Absolutely fantastic wines coming from here, we’re heading down next week so will have some fun blogs coming up–hope they inspire you to try some. Cheers!

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    • Likewise! So many great wines coming out of WA, will have lots of recommendations for you after next week ;).

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