north shore chelan

Thursday, June 18, 2009

When I visited Lake Chelan five years ago, I am reminded by a quick look through my iPhoto files, the two wineries I stopped at were Vin du Lac (http://www.vindulac.com) and Tsillan Cellars (http://www.tsillancellars.com), both just recently opened, neither selling wine from estate grown grapes. This week, in the course of a whirlwind day, I flew over/drove through/stopped at 14 of the region’s 15 wineries, several vineyards, and tasted through some 50 wines from 10 different producers – all of them estate-grown.

The newly-sanctioned Lake Chelan AVA is Washington’s 11th, and smallest in terms of vineyard land under cultivation (about 265 acres). It’s fair to ask “why does this qualify as an AVA?” with such a slender track record, but I came away convinced that it is a legitimately unique addition to the Washington portfolio.

As the thorough and detailed AVA application (prepared by Dr. Alan Busacca) explains – with substantial scientific fact-finding as its foundation – the Lake Chelan wine valley (as it’s referred to) is built around the largest natural lake in the Cascade Range, whose unique soils include layers of glacial debris, sediment from stream erosion, and airborne volcanic loess. The lake effect moderates the temperatures year round, so that the number of over 95 degree summer days (which shut down photosynthesis) and the severity of deep winter freezes (which kill vines) is significantly less than in most other eastern Washington AVAs. Lake Chelan has defined itself within the northwest corner of the sprawling Columbia valley, but includes only about one fifth of the actual lake, the narrow strip of benches and hummocks that line the “bottom” of the lake and creep up the steep cliffs.

At this lower end, the lake runs approximately east/west rather than north/south, so there is a north shore and a south shore, and they receive somewhat different exposures. The north shore benefits from south and west facing vineyards, and is considered a bit more suitable for red grapes, though plenty of white grapes are grown also. The south shore, with vineyards facing mostly to the north and east, is perhaps where the white wine grapes will prosper, though here again, at this early stage, there are plenty of red grapes planted also.

Unless you have visited Lake Chelan and toured the wineries individually, it is unlikely that you have tasted more than a smattering of these wines. Benefiting from the established tourism of the region, most wineries sell almost exclusively out of the cellar door, and there are gorgeous views, picnic areas, well-stocked gift shops, full-on restaurants, music events and other inducements at many of them. The first modern-day vines went into the ground in 1998, planted by Steve Kludt and Bob Christopher. The Kludt family still farms 35 acres at their Lake Chelan Winery (http://www.lakechelanwinery.com), which hosts daily barbecues and has the largest gift shop/tasting room in the valley.

Also on the north shore are Four Lakes (http://www.fourlakeschelanwinery.com), Tildio (http://www.tildio.com), Wapato Point (http://wapatopointcellars.com), Hard Row to Hoe (http://www.hardrow.com), Benson (http://www.bensonvineyards.com) and Vin du Lac. They are all family-owned, and all within a few miles of each other and of the town of Chelan. A very pleasant day could include stops at all of them. For spectacular views, you will want to be sure to visit Four Lakes (just about to open their new tasting room), on a high knoll surrounded by the three smaller lakes just east of Lake Chelan; also Benson Vineyards, whose brand new tasting room overlooks 30 acres of vines and offers a sweeping lake view. Hard Row and Tildio are smaller, but delightful (check out the wallpaper at Hard Row); Wapato Point and Vin du Lac offer well-made wines from their own vineyards also.

There is very little that isn’t planted somewhere in this new AVA; vintners are caught up in the excitement of exploration, and happy to try a few rows of almost anything. Surprisingly, pinot noir, which was on the mind of the Kludts when they first planted, has been a bit of a slow starter – perhaps because the wrong clones were tried. Equally surprising is how well syrahs have fared at several locations. No surprise at all – the aromatic white wines, riesling and gewürztraminer and viognier – are real stars here. If I had to characterize the AVA at this early date, I would point to the elegance and purity of the fruit flavors in these white wines, the floral, complex aromatics, the bright natural acids and the lack of heavy oak in almost all of them (even the reds). If you go to visit – and you should – focus your tasting on wines from grapes grown within the AVA, and see if you don’t agree that this new region is destined to become the source for many of the most European-styled white wines made in this state.

Tomorrow: the south shore wineries.

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