Yakima Valley’s Sub AVA – Snipes Mountain

SnipesMtnavamap2 The Yakima Valley AVA is home to three separate sub AVA’s; Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain, and Rattlesnake Hills. Each of these sub AVA’s contribute differently to the diversity of the Yakima Valley. The focus of today’s blog is Snipes Mountain AVA located in the center of the Yakima Valley between the small communities of Sunnyside and Granger.

IMG_0404Snipes Mountain is the second smallest appellation in Washington at 4,145 acres. The area gets its name from Ben Snipes, a cattle rancher who built a house there in the 1850s. There are more than 700 acres planted to over 30 vinifera varieties, with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon the most planted. Fruit from this AVA offer unique aromas and flavors which have made it desirable for winemakers to identify it as a Snipes Mountain-designated wine.

The area has an arid, continental climate, receiving an average of 7 inches of precipitation annually. Irrigation is therefore required to grow vinifera grapes. Steep north and south-facing slopes allow cold air to flow downhill, preventing frost damage that occasionally affects nearby regions.

IMG_0385The predominant soil type is loess—wind blown deposits of sand, clay, and silt—over Missoula Flood sediment, with all but the top 15 meters of Snipes lying below this series of cataclysmic events. Many areas of Snipes Mountain are covered with fist-and melon-size gravel deposited by the ancient flow of the Columbia River. A large percentage of soils here are classified as low in organic matter. This is believed to reduce vigor in the vines and increase fruit concentration.

Though the area only received appellation status in 2009, Snipes Mountain boasts a long viticultural history. Muscat of Alexandria vines from 1917 still produce grapes. Harrison Hill, which is part of the appellation, is home to some of the state’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines dating to 1963.

The following wines are great examples of the expression of Snipes Mountain AVA, located in the Yakima Valley.

Upland Estates 2009 Ampeli Ice $32. This special wine is the result of patience and dedication and it is a true honor of ours to create a wine from a vine planted in 1917. Frozen on the vine, this wine was carefully fermented in stainless steel barrels over a period of 4 months, capturing the pure varietal flavors of Muscat. Aromatically expressive, clean, viscous, creamy, and loaded with flavor like honey lime drops yet its sweetness is balanced, elegant, and rewardingly matched with brilliant acidity. Planted in 1917 by Washington wine pioneer W. B. Bridgman, they are the oldest cultivated wine grapes in the state. The front label of the bottle pays tribute to this by depicting an original vine from the same block. Purchase wine at uplandwinery.com.


2011 Harrison Hill is like a walk through an herb and flower farm. Cherries, cassis and wild raspberrys are bombarded with cedar, white pepper, violets, tea smoke, peat, linseed, woodspice and other souvage aromas. Classic Harrison Hill flavors of Cherries and leather are combined with raspberries, pomegranates and iron. This wine has perfect ripeness and beautiful tannin structure. It is both complex and elegant and has an extended pure finish. A wine of “breed “ and style. The 2011 Harrison Hill is currently sold out. Pre-order the 2012 vintage now at Delillecellars.com.

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Cabernet Sauvignon vine in bloom at DuBrul Vineyard


bloom image Dubrul

The warm Yakima Valley weather is keeping the grape vines happy and growing. This Yakima Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vine from DuBrul Vineyard (one of the later grape varieties to bloom) is entering the next phase of development with the formation of blossoms on the vine.

According to Kerry Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard, “everything is on schedule for normal, maybe a day or so early, but for the most part everything is normal for DuBrul Vineyard.”

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Yakima Valley brings the heat for photosynthesis

The Yakima Valley enjoys 300 days of sunshine each year, including more summer sun than San Diego, Phoenix, or Honolulu. What impact does this have on the award winning wine grapes of the Yakima Valley?

In recent posts we’ve talked about the soils and the vast day-to-night temperature shifts, but what about the overall temperatures found in the Yakima Valley? Heat and sunshine are two vital attributes to growing wine grapes.

photosynthesis During the growing season itself, if temperatures hover below 50 degrees* or above 95 degrees, photosynthesis virtually stops. Photosynthesis is the process by which energy from sunlight allows for the manufacture of sugars in green plants, including grapevines. A vine without these sugars is like a car without tires — useless. Excessive heat or cold can frustrate this process.

Some grapes can tolerate warmer temperatures, such as the thick skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grape, but more delicate grapes such as Riesling enjoy less heat. The variations in air and soil temperatures, soil types, and elevations are just a few of the characteristics that allow the Yakima Valley to successfully grow more than 40 different wine grape varieties.

During the growing season of 2013 (April 1, – October 31,) the Yakima Valley AVA enjoyed an average air temperature of 63.3 degrees (with a high of 99.9  degrees) while its sub appellations Red Mountain averaged 65.2 degrees  (with a high of 107.8  degrees), and Rattlesnake Hills saw an average of 63.5 degrees  (with a high of 104 degrees).**

The temperatures between 50 and 95 degrees are when the plants are manufacturing the much needed sugars for quality wine grapes. Add to that the long days and cool nights that allow the grapes to maintain acidity, 300 days of sunshine, and the most experienced growers in the Pacific Northwest and you begin understand why the Yakima Valley AVA and its sub AVA’s have become the most sought after place to purchase wine grapes.

The next time you open a wine sourced from Yakima Valley fruit, consider the almost perfect temperature and abundant sunshine that went into ripening the grapes in your glass.

The following are three wines that exhibit true Yakima Valley characteristics.

Mark Ryan  2013 Viognier
Ciel du Cheval, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley
Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley
Olsen, Yakima Valley

Thurston Wolfe  2013 Albarino
Crawford Vineyard, Yakima Valley

Owen Roe 2011 Syrah
Red Willow Chapel Block, Yakima Valley

** Washington State University AgWeatherNet program
*All temperatures are Fahrenheit.

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Yakima Valley vineyards see rapid shoot growth and pre-bloom

This week’s blog post offers a real-time visual of the five Cabernet Sauvignon vines we are monitoring during the growing season.  Each of these vines are located in a different micro-climate or sub AVA within the Yakima Valley appellation. The images reflect what the plants currently look like and the brief write ups give narrative of what is happening now and what is expected to occur in the next days or weeks.

For more information on the vineyard site of each of these vineyards click here.

Shoots are currently in the process of photosynthesis, which creates the energy to accelerate growth.  Growers will see up to 2-3 inches of growth per day, maybe more if it is real warm. 


Tapteil Vineyard, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley: Cab Sauv (planted 1985) is in leaf development stage. Leaf development somewhat behind that of nearby Cab Franc and Merlot.  RedWillowfina2l

Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley: Everything is moving along normally. We are irrigating more frequently and hoping for lots of sunshine in June for bloom.
DuBrul Final

DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley: In this block of Cabernet shoots are only a few inches long, which is normal at this point in the year.  The warm weather recently has been helping the vines along;  young shoots are growing rapidly.  As you can see in the closer photo, leaves and clusters are emerging from the growing shoot tips.  Newhousefinal

Upland Vineyard, Snipes Mtn, Yakima Valley: Vine looks very healthy. Shoot growth is 8 to 20 inches. Clusters are pre-bloom.  Once they start to bloom we will get a better idea as to an approximate harvest date, but so far it’s looking neither late nor early! This block has not yet been shoot-thinned.


Copeland Vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills, Yakima Valley: The vines are happy and progressing very nicely. The heat of late is really pushing growth. We are seeing 8-12 inches growth in Cabernet. We will start early shoot thinning the first of next week.


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The balance of Yakima Valley wines

Balanced Wine: The way in which a wine’s key components including fruitiness, sweetness, acidity, and tannin co-exist. A well-balanced wine displays a harmony of components, with no single element dominating.

balance wine diagramBalance is often used in describing a wine. But what makes a well balanced wine?  As with so many elements of a good wine, it starts in the vineyard.

Abundant sunshine is crucial to world-class wine grape cultivation.  But sun  alone is not sufficient to grow the caliber of grapes grown in the Yakima Valley.  Temperature totals, (warmth and coolness) are equally vital to grape development; and this is where the Yakima Valley really shines.

On the wine region classification system developed by the University of California at Davis, the Yakima Valley’s 2,600 to 3,000 “growing-degree (F) days” define this AVA as “Region II” and place it on par with the Bordeaux wine region of France.  Even better is the way this heat accumulates.  If it were uniformly warm all season long, Yakima Valley’s grapes would lose their natural acidity and the resulting wines would be flabby.

However, there is a dramatic difference between day and night temperatures in this valley during the growing season: afternoon highs in the 90s t0 100s (F) plunge down to the 50s (F) after midnight.  It’s what climate scientists call diurnal shift; and those dramatic temperature swings enable grapes to retain their natural, flavor-enhancing acids.

The climate of this region combines sunshine, water, heat, and cold temperatures like almost nowhere else on earth.  Most remarkable is the way this balance is achieved across multiple varieties—from Riesling and Chardonnay to Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet.

The next time you taste a wine sourced from Yakima Valley fruit, think about the balance of the wine, the astringency, acidity, and the fruitiness…..and how they are each balanced to one another.

An example of the balance of Yakima Valley wines can be found in these
three wines.

Savage Grace 2011 Cabernet Franc    Copeland Vineyard, Yakima
Valley  (planted in 2000)

Saviah 2011 GSM  Elephant Mountain Vineyard, Yakima Valley

Hightower 2010 Reserve Red Cab/Merlot   Red Mountain, Yakima

The climate of the Yakima is an integral piece of the harmony you taste in your glass.

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DuBrul Vineyard Five-Vine Cabernet bud break

DuBrul Vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon vine in full bud break. Located in the middle of the Yakima Valley AVA, this vine is part of the 5-Vine Cabernet project. Picture taken 4/23/14.

Cabernet Sauvignon vine at DuBrul Vineyard

Cabernet Sauvignon vine at DuBrul Vineyard

The was vine planted in 1992. This vine  grows in shallow Scoon soils, wind-driven loess and heterogenous rocks from the ancient Columbia River, which cover the underlying basalt promontory. The planting is at 1,300 feet elevation on an 8-15% pitch with a south facing slope. Heat units average 2765 GDD from 2009-2013. The vineyard totals 45 acres with a north-south row direction.  The fruit from this vine produces wines with deep garnet color. Typical flavors include cherry, cassis, blackberry, exotic spice, and black tea.  Abundant tannins are bold yet refined, adding texture to the extended finish characteristic of this vine.

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What to look for in a barrel sample.

This weekend marks Yakima Valley’s annual Spring Barrel Tasting event.  It is the most popular annual event for the Valley vintners and those who appreciate fine wines.

Besides enjoying the predictably sunny weather in eastern Washington, barrel-tasting weekend is an opportunity to gain insight into the artistic process behind the production at each winery. During this festive weekend you will have an opportunity to taste unfinished wines and immediately compare them to the same “finished” wine from the bottle.  But what should you be looking for in a young wine? What should you expect to taste?  If the wine is unfinished, what will it taste like once it is in the bottle?

Here are some recommendations for you as you taste wines from the barrel.

What to Expect.
Young wines, especially from the barrel, are going to be  fruity. They smell and taste more like juice than wine.

What to look for.
What type of fruit do you taste and how intense is it? The fruit should show appropriate ripeness, overripeness can mark a wine as “over the top” or unbalanced.  Overripeness occurs when the grape  stays on the vine too long, and thus raises a flag to make sure the components in the palate are not unbalanced. Overripe wines often lack acidity, obvious in alcohol and become even more so when bottled.

Underripeness results in  “green” aromas and flavors. Bell peppers and tomato leaf appear in red wines, and citric acid for most whites. These characters manifest themselves even more as the wine ages.

A wine produced in new oak will have much of the aroma and flavor of the new wood. This aroma and flavor of toast, vanilla, cedar, butterscotch, or baking spices will not be integrated with the wine. In most cases, these characters will blend into the wine and soften over time. In some cases this oakiness will be overpowering and stick out like a sore thumb. The oak treatment can also result in an increase in tannic structure of the wine, which is of special importance to the longevity and overall character of a red wine.

Red wines in the barrel will generally have a lot more tannin than a finished wine. Tannin is part of the skeleton of a red wine. If the wine has too little or too much tannin, you can make your assessment of the quality and longevity of the wine. The quality of the tannin is important as well, with ripe tannin being smooth and adding texture to the wine. Hard, dry, rough or raspy tannin can make a wine unpleasant and may be a sign of inappropriate ripeness or wine-making. You should look for velvety, ripe and silky tannin.

In a young wine you are looking for balance. Is the wine extremely intense or finesseful and elegant? Does it have all the pieces in the right place and is it harmonious?  This is a positive attribute for any wine.

There is a lot that can happen before bottling so when you are looking at purchasing “futures” of any unfinished wine, consider the producer and his/her finished wines.

Enjoy the journey from barrel to bottle!

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