Small Lake Chelan AVA has big potential
In Washington's newest AVA, Lake Chelan, wineries are building on the advantages of growing grapes next to the large lake and of the established tourist industry that affords visitors a chance to taste, dine and stay awhile.
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The Lake Chelan AVA
AN AVA (American Viticultural Area) is a federally designated, geographically defined wine-growing region. If you are entitled by law to use a specific AVA on the label of your wines, it can be extremely valuable. Think Napa Valley or Walla Walla Valley, for example. The folks making wine in the newly minted Lake Chelan AVA believe that their AVA will be equally sought-after.
Lake Chelan is Washington's 11th, the smallest in terms of total vineyard (about 265 acres), and the newest, having been approved this past spring. The first modern-era Chelan vineyards were planted as recently as 1998, and a number of Chelan growers recall that a federal official advised them that they were wasting their money on wine grapes — the vines would never survive the winters.
It's not too soon to say the government experts blew that call. The 14 wineries that now line the north and south shores of the lake, all clustered within a few miles of the town of Chelan, are already making very good wines from locally grown grapes.
As I toured the region shortly after it was approved, I got a sense not only of what makes it distinctive enough to warrant its own AVA, but also which grapes and wines may prove to be its best. The whites — especially riesling and viognier, are beautifully aromatic. The reds are subtle and elegant rather than broadly powerful. One obvious advantage that sets Chelan apart is what is called the lake effect. Proximity to such a large body of water moderates vineyard temperatures year-round, so that the risk of summer days over 95 degrees (which will shut down photosynthesis) and severe winter freezes (which can kill vines) is significantly less than in most Eastern Washington locations.
The scenery, somewhat reminiscent of Canada's Okanagan, is spectacular, and the wineries benefit from a healthy tourist industry that brings in a steady stream of visitors. Many wineries sell their wines almost exclusively out of their tasting rooms, which generally offer gorgeous views, picnic areas, well-stocked gift shops, restaurants and summer concerts.
On the north shore are Lake Chelan Winery, Four Lakes, Tildio, Wapato Point, Hard Row to Hoe, Benson and Vin du Lac, all family-owned and all within a few miles of each other. A very pleasant day could include stops at all of them, with no hard driving or time-consuming detours for food. The best views are at Four Lakes and Benson Vineyards. Hard Row and Tildio are smaller, but delightful (check out the wallpaper at Hard Row); Wapato Point and Vin du Lac offer well-made wines from estate vineyards, and Vin du Lac has a cozy cafe on site.
On the south shore are Tsillan Cellars, Tunnel Hill, Nefarious Cellars, Chelan Estate and Karma Vineyards. I am especially fond of the wines of Nefarious, along with the LEHM wines from Vin du Lac. But all of these wineries produce a wine or two that you'll want to take home with you, and the sense of discovery, of being the first to venture into such a brand new region, is worth the trip all by itself.
If asked to characterize the AVA at this early date, I would point to the elegance and purity of the fruit flavors, the floral, complex aromatics, the bright natural acids and the lack of heavy oak in most wines. If you go to visit, focus on the wines from grapes grown nearby, and see if you don't agree that Lake Chelan may become the source for some of the most European-styled white wines made in Washington.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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