Walla Walla Valley is an AVA in the south-eastern corner of Washington state, stretching across the border into Oregon. Vineyards can be found on either side of the border in the hills that surround the Walla Walla River, a tributary of the larger Columbia River.
The Walla Walla Valley has a reputation for producing high-quality Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with intense, robust flavors. The sunny, dry climate of the valley is well suited to these varieties. Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer are the most notable white wines.
© Roger McNair
The boundaries of the Walla Walla Valley AVA extend from the foothills of the Blue Mountains in the east almost to the mouth of the river, a distance of about 25 miles (40km). The state border bisects the AVA almost through the middle. Vineyards are found along the river plains and stretching up into the hills, at altitudes that range from 500ft to 1,500ft (150–450m) above sea level.
Currently, Walla Walla has just one sub-AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. This AVA lies entirely within the Oregon portion of Walla Walla Valley.
Growing conditions in Walla Walla Valley
Walla Walla Valley falls inside the larger Columbia Valley AVA, but experiences a slightly cooler climate due to its position beside the Blue Mountains. Warm sunshine during the day is followed by cold nights that are cooled by air from the mountains. This cold, alpine air pools in the valley, cooling the vines overnight and extending the ripening period of the grapes, which allows them to retain acidity as they develop rich varietal character.
There is some variation of climate within the AVA, and generally the vineyards closer to the western end of the valley are warmer and drier than those in the east. The low annual rainfall is confined almost entirely to the winter and spring months, and irrigation is required to keep the vines hydrated over the growing season. Southwesterly breezes that make their way over the hills from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA help to keep the canopy dry during the growing season, limiting the risk of mildew and rot in the vines.
Soils throughout the Walla Walla Valley are variable, mostly deposited by the river and the ancient glaciers that carved out the valley itself. Windblown loess is prevalent on the hills surrounding the valley, while the sandy loams and riverbed gravel on the flatter land provide excellent drainage for the vineyards. The sandy soils have also helped to keep phylloxera out of Walla Walla, and as a result, many vines are planted on their original rootstocks.
Walla Walla began life as a trading post and the first vines were planted here by settlers in the 1850s. The end of the Idaho Gold Rush and Prohibition spelt the end of the wine industry here until the 1970s, when pioneering vignerons began to plant vineyards in the valley.
Now, boutique and quality-conscious winemakers have flocked to Walla Walla and some of the best warm-climate red wines in the Pacific Northwest are produced here. Many wineries purchase grapes from the wider Columbia Valley region to blend with the limited quantities of locally grown fruit.