Royal Slope Designated as Washington State’s Newest American Viticultural Area

By: Becky Garrison

In September 12, 2020, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau published the final rul-ing for Royal Slope American Viticultural Area, making it Washington State’s 15th AVA, de-fined by variation in elevation, slopes and aspect. A month after the publication of the ruling, wineries within this new AVA were eligible to submit a Certificate of Label Approval request to the TTB using the Royal Slope AVA as an appellation of origin.

  Royal Slope AVA, contained wholly within the Columbia Valley AVA, consists of 156,389 acres, with the majority of the area’s soils formed of windblown silts, or loess, from the Ice Age Missoula Floods. The AVA includes Frenchman Hills, a 30-mile long east-west trending ridge with a gentle to medium steep southfacing slope. Situated between Wenatchee and Tri Cities and about two and half hours from Seattle, Royal Slope AVA has the potential to become a tour-ist destination within the growing agritourism industry.

  About 90% of Royal Slope’s area consists of gently to somewhat steeply south-facing slopes. These southern slopes represent the best aspect for wine grapes in the Pacific Northwest due to the northerly latitude. According to lore, this gentle south aspect led to the origin of the name. Apparently, a pair of Scotsmen climbed the Saddle Mountains in the 1880s and drank in the view to the north of the south-canted topography and exclaimed, “Now that’s a Royal Slope!’

  Along those lines, the name “Royal Slope” has been printed on USGS topographic maps of vari-ous scales as far back as the 1950s to indicate the general area. The term has been in common usage for more than 50 years to describe this rich agricultural district of tree fruit orchards, row and field crops, and, increasingly since the 1980s, wine grapes.

  Dr. Alan Busacca, Ph.D., Vinetas Consulting, LLC and a certified soil scientist, co-wrote the royal Slope AVA petition with Richard Rupp, Ph.D., on behalf of the Royal Slope Wine Grower’s Association. The petition was delivered to the TTB on February 23, 2017. This approximately four-year delay from filing to approval was attributed to a TTB backlog exacerbated by COVID-19.

  In a press release issued by the Washington State Wine Commission, Busacca described the Royal Slope AVA as something of an island geographically, surrounded on all sides by very different lands.

  “North of the AVA are generally flat lands of the Quincy Valley with soils on shifting dune sands. To the east and south of the AVA, the landscape falls away into the harsh, basalt bedrock-dominated cliffs of Crab Creek Coulee gouged out by Missoula Floods, and on the west, the bedrock cliffs fall away steeply to the Columbia River.”

  Overall, this AVA has an average elevation of 1,300 feet, compared to the Wahluke Slope AVA, about 15 miles to the south, which has an elevation of about 600 feet. In the Royal Slope AVA, the 10-year average heat units, or growing degree days, is 2,900, whereas the average heat units of the three hottest AVAs in eastern Washington is over 3,300.

  The difference in elevation allows for slightly cooler growing conditions, which, in turn, produces wines somewhat more refined than those grown in the hottest areas of the state.

  The first grapes were not planted in Royal Oak until 1983 when federal irrigation water first be-came available to farm these soils. From the first 40 acre vineyard in 1998, the AVA has grown to more than 1,900 acres of wine grapes in 2020.

Producing Award Winning Wines Within the Royal Slope AVA

  Within the Royal Slope AVA, one can find more than 20 varieties of wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir grapes have been planted more recently and ap-pear to have potential in certain locations. Some of the AVA’s vineyards, such as Stillwater Creek, Stoneridge and Lawrence, have become nationally and internationally known.

  Despite the hyper-fast growth of vineyard acreage, the Royal Slope area is not growing anonymous grapes for bulk wines. In fact, the opposite is true: References to wines from Royal Slope grapes are commonly associated with scores as high as 100 points by national and international wine publications such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Robert Parker and Vinous.

Josh Lawrence, owner of Lawrence Vineyards, points to the value in designating some of his vineyards as part of the Royal Slope AVA. “We’re one of the northernmost red producers in the state, as well as being known as a great food and wine pairing location.”

  The higher elevations lead to the production of more structured and pronounced reds and rosés. Also, white wine production has been on the rise within the AVA, with the high elevations re-sulting in a more angular feel to their white wine grapes.

Establishing the Candy Mountain AVA

  On September 25, 2020, the TTB also published the final rule for the Candy Mountain American Viticultural Area, thus making this 815 acre AVA the Washington State’s 16th AVA and the smallest AVA in the state. This AVA, southeast of Red Mountain, lies within the Yakima Valley AVA and the larger Columbia Valley AVA. To fully encompass the Candy Mountain AVA, the TTB expanded the existing Yakima Valley AVA boundary by 72 acres.

  Kevin Pogue, Ph.D., Professor of Geology at Whitman College, who wrote the AVA petition for Candy Mountain, offers a summary of the AVA. “Candy Mountain is distinct from the surrounding lowlands that are also within the Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley AVAs. It has a longer growing season due to very good cold air drainage, and its south-facing slopes allow the soils to warm more quickly and to higher temperatures. It also has higher average wind speeds and shal-lower soils, particularly on the upper slopes, than the surrounding lowlands. The soils, especially on the upper slopes, are composed of wind deposited silt and sand that overlies silt, sand and gravel deposited by ice age floods on the lower slopes of the mountain, and basalt bedrock on the upper slope. These factors, many of which are shared with the nearby Red Mountain AVA, can contribute to grapes that are riper and more stressed, which can produce lower yields of smaller berries with thicker skins, producing full-bodied, robust wines.”

  Currently, 110 acres of vineyards grow in Candy Mountain, almost all red varieties. Seth Kitzke of Kitzke Family Vineyards points to the unique attributes of this AVA. “Candy Mountain is distinctive, having a lot of deposited old granite in the soils and then your fractured basalt in places. It is one of the warmer AVAs that brings a big fruit profile to the wines that we love.”

  While winemakers Lawrence and Kitzke feel the Columbia AVA is known for producing quality wine, both believe that diversification within the Columbia Valley AVA is needed to show why their respective AVAs shine. In Kitzke’s estimation, having both Royal Slope and Candy Moun-tain designated as separate AVAs provides an opportunity to educate consumers about why their wines taste the way they do.

  “As a connoisseur or professional in the business, you want to be able to associate distinctive wine profiles with a place. Without AVAs in place, it makes this tough,” he said.

  Lawrence concurs, “A consumer can’t just buy a Columbia Valley AVA wine and expect this bottle to have similar characteristics to other vines from the region because of the massive area of the Columbia Valley. Hence, having smaller AVAs is very valuable for both the consumer and us.”

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