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Wahluke Slope backbone of state’s wine industry

If you spend much time drinking Washington wine, you likely know a bit about the vast Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) that covers a third of the state and appears on most wines from Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle. You've probably heard of the Yakima Valley, the Northwest's oldest approved grape-growing area, and the Walla Walla Valley, which is arguably the state's most famous region.

But the Wahluke Slope? This region remains a mystery to many wine lovers, partly because the name doesn’t roll off the tongue with any level of romance, as well as because it’s not in a well-traveled region of the state.

The Wahluke Slope became an approved AVA, or appellation, in 2006, though agricultural activities have dominated the area for decades. It’s an 81,000-acre region that is home to an estimated 6,000 acres of wine grapes, which is about 20 percent of the state’s total. The only town on the Wahluke Slope is Mattawa in Grant County, and the number of wineries in the region won’t force you to a second hand to count.

The Wahluke Slope is a fascinating region. Basically, it’s a 13-mile-wide gravel bar created by the ice age floods that ravaged Eastern Washington some 15,000 years ago. It’s bordered to the north by the Saddle Mountains and the other three sides by the Columbia River and is one of the state’s warmest grape-growing regions, often rivaling Red Mountain for ripeness. It’s also one of the earliest regions for harvest, beginning just before or after Labor Day each year.

Most importantly, top winemakers consider the Wahluke Slope the backbone of the Washington wine industry. They rely on grapes from this region to provide big flavors and structure for their wines, particularly Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

A few wineries have begun to use the Wahluke Slope AVA on their labels in the past three years. Here are a few we’ve tried recently:

Tagaris Winery 2007 Alice Vineyards Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $34: Tattooed vintner Frank Roth makes his mark with one of the Northwest’s biggest bottlings of Malbec. Ripe blackberry, cassis, Van cherry, vanilla and allspice aromas transition into a mouth-filling and balanced drink of Rainier cherries, blueberry acidity and expressive tannins.

Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards 2007 Iron Bed Red, Wahluke Slope, $28: This bordello-themed winery overlooking Lake Chelan ties in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel. It’s lively and balanced with hallmarks of red currants, boysenberries, cordial cherries, pouch tobacco and Baker’s chocolate.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 Limited Release Mourvedre, Wahluke Slope, $25: Blueberry, boysenberry, Van cherry and smoked meat aromas are joined by hints of tar and cedar. The drink is not bashful but rather big with a similar fruit and oak profile, yet there’s great acidity and managed chocolaty tannins. Enjoy with St. Louis-style ribs or tomato-based pasta or pizza.

Arbor Crest Wine Cellars 2007 Wahluke Slope Vineyard Sangiovese, Wahluke Slope, $15: The aromas feature raspberry freezer jam, white strawberry, coffee and Worcestershire sauce, and there’s a lot of finesse on the palate with berry compote, cordial cherries and ample acidity. Suggested pairings include honey-glazed pork tenderloin or a tomato-based pasta.

Duck Pond Cellars 2007 Fries Family Cellars Red Blend, Wahluke Slope, $15: This blend is Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Influence of Syrah shows with the blackberry aromas, which are joined by cherry, molasses, caramel, cedar and alfalfa. It’s a drink filled with richness of cherries, chocolate and mint, then shows some chalky tannins in the midpalate. Enjoy the cordial cherries in the farewell.

Ginkgo Forest Winery 2006 Ginkgo Red Wine, Wahluke Slope, $12: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot allows for notes of cooked cherries, blueberry and plums with pleasing allspice, vanilla and light oak accents.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest magazine. Find out more at www.winepressnw.com.

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