A look inside the new Ancient Lakes wine region

Washington has gained its newest American Viticultural Area. The Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley has been approved by the U.S. government as the state’s 13th AVA, and wineries may begin using it on wine labels in mid-November.

An AVA, commonly referred to as an appellation, is a federally approved grape-growing region that is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Tade Bureau, which is a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The United States began the AVA system in 1980, and today there are more than 200 across the United States. In the Northwest, the first AVA approved was the Yakima Valley in 1983. A year later, the Columbia Valley and its 11 million acres of space became the largest in the state.

Today, 10 Washington AVAs are within the Columbia Valley.

One of the primary purposes of forming an AVA is to alert savvy wine consumers that an area distinguishes itself for grape growing.

In the case of Ancient Lakes, making an argument that it should be singled out is not difficult. Ancient Lakes is a 162,762-acre area in Grant, Douglas and Kittitas counties.

The primary towns are Quincy and George, and the region is named for the pothole lakes formed by the Ice Age floods more than 12,000 years ago.

The Ancient Lakes are canyons that were outlet points in the Quincy Valley for the floodwaters, which essentially stripped away the soil to barren scabland.

In the ensuing centuries, wind has blown in sand that has created the soil in the Ancient Lakes and elsewhere in the Columbia Valley.

This low-nutrient, fast-draining soil is perfect for growing wine grapes because the vines must struggle to survive and thus focus their energy on producing high-quality fruit.

Butch and Jerry Milbrandt recognized the potential of Ancient Lakes more than 15 years ago, when they planted Evergreen Vineyard near Quincy. The 969-acre vineyard is a key area for growing Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and other white varieties.

“You won’t see much Cabernet, let’s put it that way,” said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, which buys about half the grapes from Evergreen each year.

“It seems to be really good at holding acidity for great aromatic whites.”

In fact, Evergreen fruit plays a key role in Eroica, a high-end Riesling that Chateau Ste. Michelle makes each year with top German Riesling producer Ernst Loosen.

Butch Milbrandt said that except for a bit of Pinot Noir, all the fruit at Evergreen and nearby Ancient Lakes Vineyard (also owned by the Milbrandts) is white. This is because the region is cool compared with the Wahluke Slope, where the Milbrandts also have large plantings.

In fact, though the two areas are only about 30 minutes from each other, they are worlds apart viticulturally. The Wahluke Slope is one of the warmest areas in Washington wine country, while Ancient Lakes ripens two weeks later.

While Evergreen is the largest vineyard in the new AVA, it is not the only player. Jones of Washington, which has a tasting room in Quincy, owns three vineyards in the new AVA, led by Two Guns with 136 acres and Lozier with 125 acres.

Victor Palencia, winemaker for Jones, said his award-winning Riesling, Pinot Gris and Rose of Syrah all come from 100 percent grapes grown within Ancient Lakes, and he expects to be among the first to carry the name of the new AVA on the label of his new wines when he begins to bottle the 2012 vintage in February.

Other wineries in the Ancient Lakes AVA include Cave B near the Gorge Amphitheater (it has some of the oldest vines in the region) and White Heron, whose owner Cameron Fries has been working with grapes from Ancient Lakes since the mid-1980s, longer than anyone else in the state.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest. For more information, go to www.winepressnw.com.

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