Why Ancient Lakes is Washington's Most Exciting New Wine Region

A relatively new wine-growing region is producing sippable whites with high acidity and minerality
field trip Cave B, in the heart of the Ancient Lakes AVA, grows Chardonnay on site and turns it into a charming blanc de blanc sparkling wine

This article appears in print in the May 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe.

Tucked away in an area of Washington that’s better known for concerts at the Gorge than for wine sits Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley, one of Washington’s newest, and most exciting, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Unlike the Walla Walla Valley, Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills AVAs—which are focused predominantly on red wines—Ancient Lakes is a cool-climate pocket of the Columbia Valley, perfectly suited for the bright, thirst-quenching whites that are ideal for drinking during Seattle’s warm months.

Ancient Lakes, approved as an AVA in 2012, covers about 160,000 acres near Quincy and George (home of the Gorge Amphitheatre concert venue). The purpose of designating a smaller sub-AVA like this one (Ancient Lakes is entirely contained within the larger Columbia Valley AVA) is to indicate that the region produces wines that are unique for one reason or another. In the case of Ancient Lakes, those reasons are climate and soil.

“The average elevation is higher than most AVAs, which contributes to a little cooler and wider diurnal temperatures during the fall,” notes Ryan Flanagan, longtime director of vineyard operations at Evergreen Vineyard, the largest site in Ancient Lakes. Those swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures help retain acidity in the grapes, and high acidity is one signature characteristic of wines from Ancient Lakes.

The other signature is minerality, believed to come from Ancient Lakes’ unique soils. When the Missoula Floods ripped through the area 15,000 years ago, they scoured away all the topsoil, leaving a base of broken basalt and, in places, a type of limestone called caliche. Limestone soils are prized throughout the wine world for the mineral character they impart. “The pure minerality you get from Evergreen,” says Brennon Leighton, director of winemaking at Seattle-based Wines of Substance, “is something that you don’t really get with huge significance from anywhere else in Washington.”

Evergreen Vineyard (planted in 1997 by longtime farmer Jerry Milbrandt) has become synonymous with Ancient Lakes, and it represents about 60 percent of the planted acreage in the AVA. In the early years, much of the fruit was sold to Chateau Ste. Michelle, where it often wound up in that winery’s high-end Eroica Riesling program. These days, about three-quarters of those grapes end up in Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Charles Smith Wines.

Riesling grapes rule in Ancient Lakes, representing about 45 percent of the planted acreage. Chardonnay makes up another 38 percent, and the remainder is mostly Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

Evergreen director Flanagan is bullish on Ancient Lakes’ future prospects. “The fact that we can hang white varieties late into the season and deliver them to wineries ripe, sharp and clean will continue to be the defining attribute of Ancient Lakes.” Leighton, who has worked with Ancient Lakes fruit for more than 15 years, agrees: “I truly believe it’s one of the most special places in Washington.” 

Bottle images courtesy of wineries

Paul’s Ancient Lakes Picks

Charles Smith 2016 Kung Fu Girl Riesling, $13
Brennon Leighton (Charles Smith Wines’ director of winemaking before its sale to Constellation Brands late in 2016) has worked with Evergreen Vineyard Riesling almost from its inception, first with Chateau Ste. Michelle, then with Efestē and finally with Charles Smith. The level of quality here is deeply impressive, considering the scale of the project (nearly 200,000 cases of the 2016). It’s an off-dry quaffer, mixing lime and peach fruit with subtleties of mineral and flower.
Pairs with: Tofu and vegetables in Thai yellow curry.
Jones of Washington 2015 Pinot Gris, $14
Quincy-based Jones of Washington is the second-largest vineyard owner in Ancient Lakes, with its holdings totaling about 900 planted acres. Victor Palencia crafts this appealing Pinot Gris for Jones of Washington, using fruit from a Jones estate site called Two-Gun Vineyard. It’s a mostly dry mid-weight, offering just a kiss of residual sugar, well balanced by plenty of zippy acidity. Flavors include tree fruits (green apple, pear) and citrus (lemon, grapefruit).
Pairs with: Roasted pork loin with apples and sweet onions.
Efestē 2016 Feral Sauvignon Blanc, $20
Peter Devison, who left Woodinville-based Efestē last year, produced a thrilling Sauvignon Blanc from Evergreen Vineyard before departing. The complex nose combines fruit (grapefruit, green papaya) with grassy tones and noteworthy minerality. In the mouth, this is full of energy and verve, the bright acidity carrying waves of fruity-mineral goodness across the palate.
Pairs with: Your own personal wheel of goat cheese.
Milbrandt Vineyards 2015 The Estates Chardonnay, Evergreen Vineyard, $22
Winemaker Emily Haines has turned out a supple, delicious Chardonnay from Evergreen Vineyard for Mattawa-based Milbrandt Vineyards. It mixes layers of fruit (Honeycrisp apple, white peach) with chalky minerality and a kiss of butterscotch, thanks to aging in 20 percent new French oak.
Pairs with: Bucatini with a creamy crabmeat and leek sauce.
Cave B 2016 Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Wine, $32
The best region in the world for sparkling wine—Champagne—boasts a cool climate and chalky soil. So it is only natural that winemakers in Ancient Lakes would begin playing with bubbly. Freddy Arredondo, longtime winemaker at Quincy-based Cave B Estate Winery (the winery next to Cave B Inn), is making a blanc de blanc entirely from Chardonnay grown on site at Cave B. Aromas of lemon curd, apple and doughy croissant, and the wine is bone dry, complex and deeply refreshing, offering plenty of signature Ancient Lakes minerality.
Pairs with: A Caesar salad studded with smoked salmon. 

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