Walla Walla Valley: The Dirt, literally

I recently went on a wine-centric trip to the Pacific Northwest. The itinerary included the Walla Walla Valley in Southeastern Washington and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. One of the attributes of these regions, or of any wine region, I find incredibly fascinating is the diversity of soil and rock formations that give the wines their unique character. Fortunately, our host winery in Walla Walla, Dusted Valley, was equally infatuated (probably even more) with the soil composition of their area. To imagine that all of the events that took place millions of years ago: lava flows, glacier melts, evolution and decimation of organisms, even meteor strikes… all contribute to the blueprint of the wine we sip and swirl. Kind of makes one feel small…and thirsty!!

The lush evergreen forests of the Oregon coast give way to dried, golden high desert slopes as you travel up the Columbia River Gorge from Portland, OR to the Walla Walla Valley, witness in the dynamic landscape a living time capsule of seismic and geological events. The results of these violent and significant episodes created pockets of unique agricultural significance that are expressed in the lauded produce of the Walla Walla region. When in town, you must try the strawberries, sweet onions asparagus and apples. At this time of year, there are stands are every 50 feet and hard to resist, but, let’s be honest…I came for the wine.

A glass of Walla Walla Syrah at The Glass House overlooking Walla Walla Valley

The Walla Walla Valley straddles the state line in the eastern part of Washington and Oregon. The valley itself is over 300,000 acres but only 2,933 acres are planted to vine. Because Mother Nature does not recognize political boundaries, of those vines 43% are in Oregon and 57% is in Washington. However, a political boundary between Washington and Oregon exists within the Walla Walla Valley and complicates the matter. According to American Viticultural Area (AVA) statues, the AVA designation of Walla Walla can only be used in Washington. An Oregon producer within the Walla Walla Valley must use ‘The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA’ on their label. Politics….harrumph! The valley’s economy is very tight-knit and it is difficult to know which jurisdiction you are physically in. There were times during this day that the group (and by group, I mean myself) was unsure about which state we were in…must have been all of the amazing strawberries, but I digress.

Another interesting fact about the Walla Walla AVA is that while this region is considered to be one of the top producing designations for high-quality wine in Washington. These wines only account for about 10% of ALL Washington wine. So sipping on a Washington- Walla Walla appellation wine is pretty special!

NERD ALERT *I’m about to go down a geologic rabbit hole, but if you stay with me, you will appreciate wine that much more!

The name Walla Walla means ‘running waters’. Situated at the foot the Blue Mountains, where the Touchet and Walla Walla rivers originate and flow west. These waters converge with creeks along the way and ultimately join with the Columbia River. The valley itself is located on the Columbia Plateau, which was formed by enormous basaltic lava flows 17 million years ago. Then, when glaciers moved through the area 2 million years later, the waters flooded this particular space because the Wallula Gap, a land formation at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers, created a dam. Once the waters broke the dam, the gushing waters continued down the Columbia River, emptying the Valley leaving ancient soils, sand, gravel, silt on top of the Basalt bedrock on the valley floor, like a big mud puddle. During this period, the valley flooded and emptied a few more times creating the rich soils for the Valley Floor but leaving a deep bedrock of Basalt that is topped with a thin layer of wind-blown silt loam soils called ‘Lickskillet’

Chad Johnson from Dusted Valley Winery at cut site showing the Basalt Bedrock topped with the thin, golden ‘Lickskillet’ soil. The cut is about 3 stories tall. The Basalt Bedrock is as deep as 6000 feet.

The Missoula Floods that occurred at the end of the last ice age, approximately 1.5 million years ago, were another important occurrence that helped create and shape the landscape of this region. These were cataclysmic floods that swept periodically across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River Gorge. The Missoula Floods deposited many types of soils along its path, which included the Walla Walla and the Willamette Valleys.

Combine the trauma of floods with the heat of volcanic activity and the cooling effect of the glaciers and many interesting rock formations were created along with soil deposits that are unique to this part of the world.

Basalt rock shards and fossilized organic matter in the Walla Walla Valley soils.

The Basalt lava rock is recognizable by the holes that formed from gasses releasing and intermixed are fossilizations of crustaceans that leave behind a white chalky, limestone formation. The colors of the rocks are mixed in almost a Jackson Pollock sort of way, but indicate the rich minerality and diversity of rock density that the roots of the vine must navigate to find nutrients. This is why you don’t find world-class wine regions in fertile soils… a stressed vine makes great wine!

A Basalt Rock Mash- up with minerals and iron ore.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater

A special place in Walla Walla Valley that produces exceptionally high quality wine fruit is The Rocks District of Milton- Freewater, located on the Oregon side of the valley. This area is appropriately named for the large rocks that were deposited in this particular site by the Missoula Floods, the Walla Walla River and the erosion of the Blue Mountains. While the rocks look similar to the galets in Chateauneuf du Pape, these rocks are not just on the surface, but actually a pile of large rocks about 300 feet deep. This makes for excellent drainage but also difficult to find nutrients. It is this dichotomy that stresses the vines that keeps yield low and the vines put all of their energies into making the best fruit possible.

The Basalt volcanic rocks of The Rocks District of Milton- Freewater

The rocks have a couple of functions in this growing region. Due to their heat retention, the stones are important in the transmission of solar energy to the vine. The rocks transmit the solar energy to the root zones that stimulate the vines and promote the growth stages such as bud break, flowering, veraison and ripening. The clusters of grapes that grow closer to the surface stones benefit from their radiant heat. These grapes have thicker skins, higher brix (aka sugars) and other accelerated phenolic compounds that create more complex wines.

The bare, rocky soils between the vines help the plants to create riper fruit

A popular varietal to grow in this region is Syrah. The fine folk at Dusted Valley Winery were the first to plant Syrah in the Walla Walla Valley in 2007, specifically in the Stony Vine Vineyard within the The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Other wine growers thought they had rocks in their head (ha…see what I did there?!?) for planting Syrah, but considering the rocky soil and the pathway to the sea, similar to the Rhone, they were right!! In the past few years, the wine critics have been raving about Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley, though usually the Syrahs grown in this area are lumped into Washington Syrah, we now all know better… now. In the past few years, there have been several wines from this vineyard that have been listed on the Wine Spectator’s top 100!

Syrah Vines at Stony Vine Vineyard. Syrah grapes at Veraison

The Syrah from the Stony Vine Vineyard in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater are characterized by their varietal ‘gaminess’, spice and deep, rich color. The skins of these Syrah grapes, especially the bunches closest to the rocks, develop a significant thickness that imparts an inky, dark plum color and body building tannic structure. These bunches are paired with the fruit from the top of the vines that have a balancing acidity. Put this all together and you have the ingredients for an amazing Syrah!

Phew! We got down and dirty in the Valley!

The Walla Walla Valley, while miles from…well, anywhere, is a very special place that is uniquely suited to growing my favorite beverage. I appreciate that it took millions of years for all the elements to come into play, which makes every taste of these labor-of-love wines even more vibrant and tantalizing. While you might not have a Walla Walla or The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA wine in your glass, tonight as you sip on your well-earned fermented grape juice, consider all the events, stages, elements and techniques that brought the liquid to be. And know I’ll be sipping with you, along with the other well-deserving winos of the world.

~Jill, Big Red Liquors Wine Specialist

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