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Washington: California's northern wine rival

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Washington State is slowly but surely growing its reputation on the world stage with the production of premium wines. Now the second-largest producer in the United States (behind California), Washington wines are unique, and offer some incredible value for those looking outside of the inflated prices of the premium Californian regions.

The vast majority of wine (99%) in Washington is grown to the east of the Cascade mountain range, which produces a rain shadow that gives the region warmer, drier temperatures year-round. Most of the wines are produced in the large region known as the Columbia Valley – the largest of the state’s 11 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) or appellations – where 95% of the state’s wine is produced. The Columbia Valley encompasses many of the states smaller appellations.

Smaller appellations to look for include the Yakima Valley, the Columbia Gorge, and the Walla Walla Valley. Most of the best-known, highest-prestige wines come from one of these three appellations. Both Yakima and Walla Walla are found within the Columbia Valley, while the Columbia Gorge is located on the south-western corner of the Columbia Valley, and spills over into Oregon.

Wine has been grown in Washington since 1825, but it wasn’t until the key appellations were formed in the early 1980s that the state began making its way to premium status. In the past ten years, decades of work by some of the world’s top winemakers has paid off in internationally-acclaimed wines taking top honors at events around the world.

The temperate climate of the eastern portion of the state allows for the growing of most varietals, but Washington is especially known for its production of riesling, chardonnay, syrah, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. In recent years many serious cabernet sauvignon drinkers have turned from the more expensive Napa Valley to Washington cabernet sauvignons, and many top wine magazines have written that while the prices are often half, the quality is comparable.

Wines from Washington state are distributed all over the United States and abroad, but as in most premium wine regions many of the top brands are extremely small wineries that have limited or no distribution. For this reason, wine tasting in Washington State can be full of many new experiences, and the opportunity to purchase limited-production bottles available nowhere else.