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Become a Washington State Wine Expert in 10 Bottles

A guide to the state’s top grapes, styles, and regions

Vicki Denig By April 7, 2022
landscape shot of Walla Walla farm land in Washington State
Walla Walla farm land in Washington State. Photo by Patricia Thomas/Shutterstock. Merlot illustration by Apostle/Shutterstock.

When it comes to American wine, while California and Oregon may get the majority of attention, Washington state also plays a massive role in the country’s viticultural scene. Home to 60,000 plus acres of vines, 1,000 wineries, and more than 400 grape growers, Washington has played an important role in elevating the Pacific Northwest’s wine production.

Washington state is best known for its Bordeaux and Rhône-inspired red blends, as well as its varietal white wines produced from Chardonnay, Riesling, and other grape varieties. The state’s focus on quality over quantity has long been at the forefront of its mission. Learn more about the versatile production taking place across Washington’s 19 AVAs, as well as 10 bottles to dive into for a broad tasting perspective, via our Buyer’s Guide below. 

Quick Facts

  • Location: Pacific Northwest, United States.
  • Size: more than 60,000 acres.
  • Main red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah.
  • Main white grapes: Chardonnay, Riesling.
  • Benchmark producers: Syncline Winery, Cayuse Vineyards, L’Ecole No. 41.

Where are Washington state’s major wine regions?

The majority of Washington’s wine production takes place on the eastern side of the state, specifically to the east of the Cascade Mountains. The state is home to 19 American Viticultural Areas, the largest of which is the Columbia Valley AVA. 

What kind of wine is made in Washington state?

Washington’s wine production spans a variety of grapes and wine styles. Red, white, and rosé wines are produced at more than 1,000 wineries, both in still and sparkling. 

What are the main grape varieties of Washington state?

Washington’s vineyards are dedicated 60% to red varieties and 40% to white varieties. 

The key grapes are Chardonnay and Riesling for white, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah for red. 

What are the subregions of Washington state?

Washington is home to 19 AVAs or geographically defined regions. The first to be defined was Yakima Valley, in 1983, while the biggest by far is the Columbia Valley, responsible for the vast majority of grape growing in the state; it also contains several sub-appellations.

Four of the AVAs overlap with other states: Columbia Valley, Columbia Gorge, and Walla Walla all extend into Oregon, while Lewis-Clark Valley is also part of Idaho.

Who are the benchmark producers of Washington state? 

Today, Washington is home to more than 400 grape growers and more than 1,000 wineries. Some of the state’s benchmark producers include L’Ecole No. 41, Syncline Winery, and Cayuse Vineyards.

The largest producer by volume is Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns several of the state’s wineries.

5 producers to buy now:

Treveri Cellars

Based in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Treveri Cellars has been dedicating its production exclusively to sparkling wine since 2010. The family-owned estate specializes in traditional method sparkling wines, produced in white, rosé, and red formats. The winery’s production is spearheaded by winemaker Juergen Grieb, a German-born producer who moved to the U.S. in 1983. Although sparkling wine is far from Washington’s claim to fame, these bottle-fermented wines are some of the most exciting and unique to come out of the United States. 

 

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bottle of Treveri Cellars Blanc de Blancs Brut

Treveri Cellars Columbia Valley Blanc de Blancs NV (~$14)

This non-vintage Blanc de Blancs is one of Treveri’s most successful cuvées. Crafted entirely from Chardonnay, the wine shows classic flavors of green apple and brioche, ages for 24 months on the lees, and is finished with 12 grams of dosage prior to bottling — making it an all-around crowd pleaser for fans of various sparkling wine styles.

bottle of Treveri Cellars Sparkling Rosé NV

Treveri Cellars Sparkling Rosé NV (~$15)

This unique blend of Syrah and Chardonnay is versatile and fruit-driven, marked by notes of citrus, red berries, and sweet spice. The wine is bottled with a higher dosage than the estate’s classic Blanc de Blancs, 22 grams per liter for the sparkling rosé, rendering it the perfect aperitif wine before a long meal — or an even tastier way to end it, when paired with dessert, of course. 

L’Ecole No. 41

L’Ecole No. 41 is one of the most iconic and respected wineries in Washington state. Founded in Walla Walla in 1983, the estate is one of Washington’s oldest family-owned wineries and is now spearheaded by the original family’s second generation. The estate’s high-quality wines and focus on site specificity render the wines some of the best quality-to-price ratio bottles coming out of both Walla Walla and Washington state as a whole. L’Ecole No. 41 is best known for their red wines, specifically those crafted from Bordeaux varieties, though a handful of whites are also made from Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Semillon. The winery is a leading pioneer of sustainable farming and exclusively produces wines from Salmon-Safe certified vineyards. 

bottle of L'Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Chardonnay

L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Chardonnay 2019 (~$24)

Fruit for L’Ecole No. 41’s Chardonnay comes from four different vineyard sites cultivated in cooler-climate areas of the Yakima and Columbia Valleys, which create a more restrained and acid-focused flavor profile in the wine. Aging in 100% mostly neutral French oak adds the ideal amount of texture, weight, and sweet spice undertones to its finish. 

bottle of L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot 2018

L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla Valley Merlot 2018 (~$39)

L’Ecole No. 41’s Merlot has been a benchmark expression of the variety for over three decades. Crafted from a handful of vineyard sites — 60% of which are estate-owned — the wine is rounded out with smatterings of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Those with an affinity for Right Bank Bordeaux will likely enjoy this New World rendition.

Pursued by Bear

Pursued by Bear in Walla Walla is the passion project of renowned actor Kyle MacLachlan, a Yakima native with an affinity for well-made, quality-focus wines. MacLachlan first fell in love with wine after moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s. In 2005, he partnered with winemaker Eric Dunham to produce Pursued by Bear’s inaugural wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon; three years later, he joined forces with winemaker Daniel Wampfler to create Baby Bear Syrah in honor of the birth of MacLachlan’s son. Since then, Pursued by Bear has also added a Baby Bear rosé, Bear Cub red blend, and Twin Bear Cabernet Sauvignon to their lineup. Today, all wines at Pursued by Bear are crafted from meticulously sourced fruit and are produced by Wampfler, with MacLachlan closely involved at every step of the way. These wines honor the rugged terroir of eastern Washington and promise undeniable enjoyment to those who pop their corks. 

 

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bottle of Pursued By Bear Rose Blushing Bear

Pursued by Bear Blushing Bear Rosé 2020 (~$28)

Inspired by MacLachlan’s love for the great Bandol rosés of France, this pale-hued wine is crafted from 76% Grenache and 24% Mourvèdre. The wine was fermented and aged in steel so as to preserve its fresh, fruit-driven flavors and lively acidity. 

bottle of Pursued by Bear Baby Bear Syrah 2018

Pursued by Bear Baby Bear Syrah 2018 (~$59)

This varietal Syrah is produced from fruit grown in the Columbia Valley, specifically from the Lewis Estate and Phinny Hill vineyards. Expect a rich, full-bodied, and fruit-forward expression of the wine loaded with sweet-yet-restrained undertones of spice and vanilla, thanks to the wine’s 30 months of aging in 600-liter French oak puncheons.

Syncline Winery

Based in Horse Heaven Hills, in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, Syncline Winery is best known for its signature red blends inspired by France’s Rhône Valley. The estate was founded by Poppie and James Mantone back in 1999, who met while working harvest in Oregon’s Willamette Valley two years prior. Four years later, the pair began planting their own vines, and today, proudly farms 17 acres of vineyards biodynamically. The winery’s production is kept to less than 5,000 cases per year, so as to ensure that quality remains at the forefront of the estate’s focus. 

 

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bottle of Syncline Subduction Red Wine

Syncline Subduction Columbia Valley Red Blend 2019 (~$26)

Inspired by the great blends of France’s Southern Rhône region, Syncline’s Subduction Red Blend is aromatic, high-toned, and incredibly juicy on the palate. The wine serves as a survey of Washington’s Columbia Valley sub-AVAs, with fruit hailing from Horse Heaven Hills, Yakima Valley, and Red Mountain. The final blend consists of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Grenache, and Cinsault, aged in a combination of neutral French barriques and puncheons, cube tanks, and oak tanks. 

bottle of Syncline Mourvedre Horse Heaven Hills

Syncline Horse Heaven Hills Mourvèdre 2018 (~$36)

Syncline’s varietal Mourvèdre comes from Horse Heaven Hills and is entirely destemmed prior to native yeast fermentation. The wine ages for 10 months in barrel, so as to soften the often austere nature that varietal Mourvèdre can show. Expect a ripe yet soft, full-bodied wine perfect for pairing with a variety of hearty foods. 

Cayuse Vineyards

In the world of highly sought-after wines from the West Coast, Cayuse sits atop Washington state’s throne. The Walla Walla estate was founded by Champagne native Christophe Baron in 1997, who originally planned to purchase vines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, though fell in love with the terrain of Walla Walla, which reminded him of the famed galets roulés-laden soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Cayuse Vineyards gets its name from a Native American tribe, which was derived from the French word for stones, cailloux. Today, Baron’s acclaimed wines are produced from a mosaic of grape varieties, all of which hail from biodynamically-farmed sites. Cayuse wines are known for their food-friendliness, age-worthy potential, and terroir-reflective nature. 

bottle of 2017 Cayuse Armada Syrah

Cayuse Armada Vineyard Syrah 2017 (~$146)

Cayuse first produced its Armada Syrah back in 2003. Fruit for this wine hails from a seven-acre, biodynamically-farmed vineyard site in Walla Walla Valley and pays homage to the great wines of Baron’s native France, specifically the Rhône Valley. 

bottle of 2017 Cayuse En Chamberlin Vineyard Impulsivo

Cayuse En Chamberlin Impulsivo Tempranillo 2017 (~$142)

Tempranillo may not be one of Washington state’s more prominent red varieties, though when produced at Baron’s hands, the wine is unmissable — that is, if you can get your hands on a bottling. Expect a full-bodied wine laden with flavors of dark fruit, tobacco, and sweet spice to lead to a lingering, long-lasting finish.