The federal government has designated the Royal Slope as Washington state’s newest American Viticultural Area, or AVA.
To qualify as an AVA, a wine grape-growing region must set itself apart with climate, soil, elevation and physical features. A new one doesn’t come around very often.
The Royal Slope AVA is just over 156,000 acres, and is north of the Tri-Cities.
There are more than 1,900 acres of wine grapes currently planted within this new AVA, growing more than 20 varieties.
Some varieties that grow well there are cabernet sauvignon, syrah and viognier, says winemaker Mike Januik, who has been working with grapes from the area for more than 20 years. He says what sets this new AVA apart is how high it is.
“Stillwater Creek Vineyard is the vineyard I work with up on the Royal Slope,” Januik says. “And its elevation is between 1,200 and 1,500 feet. To give you an idea of different areas, to the south of the Royal Slope are the Saddle Mountains, and on the south side of the Saddle Mountains is the Wahluke Slope and vineyard elevations there are probably 600 feet. So that’s just a big difference. If you go to Red Mountain or the Yakima Valley or the Horse Heaven Hills (AVAs), ordinarily you just don’t encounter elevations like that.”
Januik says one vineyard he works with needs special tractors to ply back and forth on the ultra-steep hillsides.
Alan Busacca, of Bingen, Washington, and owner of Windhorse Vineyard, co-authored the petition for the new AVA.
Busacca says the majority of the Royal Slope’s windblown soils are formed from glacial floods. And the area includes the Frenchman Hills, a 30-mile-long, east-west ridge with a south-facing slope. He says the fresh appellation is 600 to 800 feet higher than many of the state’s growing areas. That makes a difference in the wines.
“And as a result it’s a little cooler at night, a little cooler in the daytime,” Busacca says. “And the wines that are made from those grapes are a little less jammy and intense. They don’t punch you in the face quite so much.”
In about a month, wineries can submit their requests to the federal government for their new labels using the Royal Slope AVA name.