Long summer days make crisp, balanced wines

The longest day of the year is now behind us, but Yakima Valley wine grapes are still receiving more sunshine than the famous California wine-growing regions.

It may surprise many that the Yakima Valley’s long summer days generate more sunlight, due to longer day length, than San Diego, Phoenix and Honolulu. These long, sunny days help the grapes develop with bright acidity and ripe fruit flavors.

The Cascade Mountains dramatically influence the weather in the Valley. Weather that is cloudy in Seattle turns clear by the time it reaches the Yakima Valley in a phenomenon known as a “rain shadow.”

Most of Washington state’s weather comes off the Pacific Ocean, resulting in moist west-to-east atmospheric currents. When those masses of moving air hit the Cascades, they are forced to rise and cool rapidly. Such a quick shift releases huge amounts of mountain precipitation.

By the time those clouds reach the Yakima Valley, the precipitation is gone. They dissipate, and the skies over the Yakima Valley are left clear and sunny.

Abundant sunshine and clean water are crucial to world-class wine grape cultivation, but the grapes need more. Seasonal temperature totals, otherwise known as heat accumulation, are vital to thriving vines, 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 (a term for wine that has no acidity).

There is a dramatic difference between day and night temperatures in this Valley during the growing season: afternoon highs in the 80s (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.

Regions that lack such ideal conditions can “fix” the quality of the grapes that they harvest — through chemical additions or other manipulations in the winery — but it’s never quite like Mother Nature’s own touch.

What does all this mean to the wines of the Yakima Valley? In a word: balance. The climate of this region combines sunshine and water as well as heat and cold like almost nowhere else on Earth. The end result is grapes that are ripe and yet crisp, and those become wines that are lush and yet fresh.

Most remarkable is the way this balance is achieved across multiple varieties — from riesling and chardonnay to syrah, merlot and cabernet.

When people ask which grapes grow well in the Yakima Valley, the best response might be: Which grapes don’t grow well here? Such diversity is a marketing challenge in a world where wine regions prefer to hang their hat on a single style, but it’s also a delight to wine consumers with open minds and open palates.


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