Expectations are bound to be high for a wine made from grapes grown in a region with a name as magical and alluring as Ancient Lakes American Viticultural Area.
And those expectations are met and exceeded with dozens of wines — both whites and reds — that claim the rocky Central Washington area around Quincy as their vineyard source.
A desolate land of beauty and geological splendor, the rocky cliffs and deep volcanic soils along the plateau rising above the Columbia River offer unique mineral qualities to the water-seeking vines planted here.
The AVA includes vast vineyards owned by the Jones and Milbrandt families who make wine for dozens of labels in addition to their own.
There are only about a half dozen wineries and tasting rooms to be found, but they are well worth seeking out, offering not only great wine but friendly service, regular entertainment, stunning views and a chance to learn about the geological magic of this region.
Tasting rooms include Jones of Washington, the elegant Cave B Estate Winery, Beaumont Cellars Winery, Chris Daniel, White Heron Cellars and Errant Cellars, all close to Quincy.
Situated close to the Columbia River gorge between the Beezley Hills and Babcock Ridge near Quincy, extending toward the Frenchman Hills north of Royal City, the area is one the state’s most barren and scenic landscapes. The gorge area in particular compares to the Grand Canyon in its rugged beauty. The area includes about 35 small lakes collectively known as the “Ancient Lakes.”
Cameron Fries, owner and winemaker for White Heron Cellars, worked with Freddy Arredondo of Cave B Estate and Washington State University soil scientist Joan Davenport to create the Ancient Lakes AVA in 2012.
“The idea is to point attention to our growing area,” said Fries. “We want people to come here for the wine.”
Vince and Carol Bryan planted the first still-surviving vineyard along the gorge in the 1980s. Fries was the first winemaker for their Champs de Brionne winery. Fries moved on to start White Heron in 1990. The Bryans later re-created Champs de Brionne as Cave B Estate Winery with Arredondo, the Bryan’s son-in-law, as winemaker. The elegant SageCliffe Resort & Spa and famous Gorge Amphitheatre, both started by the Bryans and later sold, are adjacent to the winery.
In the 1990s, brothers Jerry and Butch Milbrandt, Terry Flanagan and Jack Jones started planting hundreds of acres of vineyard around Quincy and George. The Milbrandt and Flanagan families now have about 1,500 acres of vineyard in the area. Jones of Washington has about 600 acres. Grapes from those vineyards are crushed and made into wine at huge processing plants in George and Mattawa for their own wines and dozens of other wineries, including Chateau St. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Charles Smith and Gallo.
The magic of the area is the caliche soils over fractured basalt and cool river-driven airflow, said Ryan Flanagan, vineyard manager for Milbrandt and Ryan Patrick vineyards in the area.
“Varieties get fully ripe here,” he said. Grapes can be left to hang on the vine longer to achieve full flavors without losing acidity as would occur in many other growing areas.
Flanagan said the region, and especially Milbrandt’s Evergreen Vineyard near George, has become well known for producing bright, full-flavored white wines, especially Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Syrah, more recently planted in the Spanish Castle Vineyard near Trinidad, is also starting to make a name for itself as a rosé as well as a full-bodied red, he said.
“Ancient Lakes is a phenomenal area for whites,” added Victor Palencia, wine director for Jones of Washington, J & S Crushing and his own Monarcha and Palencia wineries. “We can let the grapes hang on the vines a couple weeks longer.” White wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Albariño are crisp, lively with acid and complex with minerality.
Palencia’s white wines for Jones of Washington have been perennial Gold Medal winners in the annual North Central Washington Wine Awards judging. Ancient Lake grapes have also been his choice in making many of his own award-winning Palencia wines.
“I’ve used Albariño from all different parts of the state. When I choose grapes from Ancient Lakes, I get something very different: full of citrus, rich minerals, caliche soils,” he said.
Palencia said over the past dozen years he’s learned that the Ancient Lake’s unique micro-climate and assortment of growing areas at different elevations can also match up well with many red wine varieties like Syrah and Malbec.
“For consumers looking for a wine with Ancient Lakes AVA on the label, they should expect exceptional aromatics and depth of flavor,” he said. “They should expect something exciting.”
Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley became the 13th AVA in Washington state on Oct., 18, 2012.
About 2,000 acres are currently planted to wine grapes in Ancient Lakes, but the AVA encompasses 169,153 acres in total.
The border of the Ancient Lakes is the Beezley Hills to the north, the eastern edge of the Quincy Basin defined by the manmade Winchester Wasteway canal to the east, the Frenchman Hills to the south, and the western shoreline of the Columbia River creates the border to the west. The famous Gorge Amphitheatre resides on the western edge of the AVA.
Wine grapes have been planted in the Ancient Lakes region since the 1980s. Most vineyard acres are planted to white varieties such as Riesling and Chardonnay, but red varieties are also planted.
Located within the Columbia Valley on soils left from the Missoula Floods, Ancient Lakes has elevations ranging from 570 feet at the edge of the Columbia River to 1,912 feet in the Frenchman Hills in the southern portion of the AVA.
There are 65 soil types within the Ancient Lakes AVA, with the most common 17 soils making up 88 percent of the land. The Ancient Lakes region soils are aridisols, which are formed in arid conditions and contain little organic matter. Wine grapes thrive in these “poor” soils because less nitrogen in the dirt results in a smaller vineyard canopy and more intense flavors in the grapes.
The Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley has a 182-day growing season and receives very little rainfall, only 6 inches of rain a year.
Source: Washington State Wine Commission
Ancient Lakes AVA tasting rooms
Cave B Estate Winery, 348 Silica Road, Quincy, caveb.com
Chris Daniel, 2743 Highway 283 N., Quincy, chrisdaniel.wine
Milbrandt Vineyards and Ryan Patrick Winery have a combined tasting room in Leavenworth.