By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 4/25/2004 9:13:16 PM ET 2004-04-26T01:13:16

Wine folk often seem obsessed with "terroir" -- that elusive blend of soil, terrain, weather and climate that determines whether grapes are destined for glory or obscurity.

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But that’s not quite what comes to mind when you first see the Horse Heaven Hills, a set of long, arid ridges along Washington state's lower lip.

Depending on your view of the world, they are either starkly beautiful or a deserted moonscape.

“I recall going through this area as a young boy to go fishing with my father,” recalls Kevin Corliss, director of viticulture for Stimson Lane, which owns such major labels as Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle. “And there was nothing there.”

The hills are, however, home to some of the most flavorful wine grapes in the nation. And an intrepid set of winemakers has been working for years to make the hills a unique slice of terroir. They want the Horse Heaven Hills to be a specific appellation, a name that can only be used on wine made from grapes grown there.

Relying on geography
It’s a notably Old World concept. Europeans swear by geography as wine’s single most important defining characteristic. Their vintages strive for the appellation marks that show off their heritage: The French have their Appellation D’origine Contrôlée (AOC), the Italians their Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).

Americans haven’t been quite so convinced. Until recently, most U.S. appellations have been huge, poorly defined tracts of land. Even top wines have often been blends of grapes from several vineyards and regions.

No more. American winemakers have become enamored of terroir, seeing it as the best way to sell wines in the European's mode: Living and dying by geography.

Thus the winemakers of the Horse Heaven Hills hope to make it the next American Viticultural Area (AVA), the domestic equivalent of an appellation.  If all goes well, they may get their wish as soon as the next two weeks.

The one granting that wish would be the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a recent outgrowth of the longstanding Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.  Winemakers who want a new AVA must prove several things to the bureau: The area must be known by the name they propose, it must have unique growing conditions different from areas around it and it must have specific, mappable boundaries.

If a proposed AVA wins approval — a process that often takes years — it becomes federally regulated and protected. Wines must contain at least 85 percent of its grapes to use the name.

Aside from state names (California merlot, New York chardonnay) the United States now has some 170 specific AVAs from Massachusetts (Martha’s Vineyard) to west Texas (Escondido Valley) and everywhere in between. Some are tiny -– California’s Santa Rita Hills comprises about 100 acres -– but most are huge, which is what prompted Washington winemakers to launch their petition.

Seeking a small slice
The state’s AVAs have until now been broadly defined; the Yakima Valley appellation is over 600,000 acres, Columbia Valley is over 1.1 million. As such, it was difficult to highlight exceptional vintages from specific areas.  Vineyard names could be used, but the wine was still a “Columbia Valley sauvignon blanc” or the like. 

To its supporters, the Horse Heaven Hills were different enough to be carved out of the massive Columbia Valley appellation. “There are characteristics that distinguish the fruit from other areas,” Corliss says.

The proposed area  — a wedge that starts on the hills’ 2,400-foot ridges and slopes south to the Columbia River — still comprises over 6,000 acres of grapes from some 20 growers, including the state’s largest wineries (Stimson Lane’s holdings) to some of the most well established vineyards in the state, like Champoux, which supply many small wineries. 

Essentially a drainage basin, the hills’ gentle slopes were used for dry land wheat and some early 20th-century irrigated agriculture.  They are bone dry, hotter and windier than the Yakima Valley to the east.  Yet winters are a bit milder, thanks to the nearby river, and an  October temperature drop keeps grapes on the vine just a bit longer, growing riper and creating fuller-bodied wine.

“It takes about two months for you to get the red stains out of your hands after working with it,” says Marcus Notaro, who makes Columbia Crest’s red wines.

The high latitude (46 degrees north) provides a bit more sunlight in summer months than in Bordeaux and the northern Rhône. And perhaps most crucially, the soil is unforgiving: Loamy sand and gravel that makes grapevines fight to take root and flourish.  Stress on the vines makes for hardy, robust grapes.

Plus, with just six inches of precipitation a year, winemakers can fine-tune irrigation to emulate ideal growing conditions for a wide variety of grapes.  It is a playground for enological experimentation.

Horse Heaven Hills isn’t the state’s only effort to seek out smaller appellations. Its Red Mountain AVA, famed for its red wines, was created in 2001 with just 700 acres of vines.  And wineries plan to seek recognition for other areas that are growing popular: Wahluke Slope, the Rattlesnake Hills and even Lake Chelan, in the Cascade Mountain foothills.

The real value
This is more than just pride of place.  The more precise the terroir, the rarer the wines that come from it — and the more vineyards can charge for the best ones.  With smaller appellations, winemakers can create rarity in the market and score higher prices for their most rarified wines. 

“It just makes it a little more special,” says Mike Januik, whose Januik Winery bottles both premium blends and vintages from vineyards like Champoux. “It recognizes the uniqueness of each one of those individual areas.”

Some vineyards resent this marketing-minded approach. At least a few AVAs have been held up by politics, usually when a single winery tries to carve out its own land as an appellation, as has happened in California.

And many winemakers prefer to create the taste of their wines through careful blending, rather than rely on a single source of great grapes. Top-rated wines are produced using both methods, but the mystique of location resonates with collectors.

“The notion of terroir, you certainly lose that when you start blending,” says Januik, who previously crafted wines for Chateau Ste. Michelle. “One might argue that the best wine year after year is really the one that comes from a diverse range of vineyards. On the other hand, people are quite interested in the uniqueness of individual vineyard sites.”

Even in France, which all but defines wine tradition, appellations are being accepted as valuable marketing tools.  The board that controls French appellations is considering its first changes since 1935, a new mark — Apellation d’Origine Contrôlée d’Excellence (AOCE) — to delineate regions’ very top wines.

Looking at the global market, many wine experts believe these subdivisions are a necessary next step for Washington wines and American wines generally.  European drinkers cherish the subtle variations of their terroir — the charms of an Haut-Médoc or a Paulliac — and expect the same from New World winemakers. 

So for Washington, thinking in smaller patches of soil could help demonstrate that, like California, it has finally come of age as a wine growing region. “As Americans,” says Corliss, “we’re all pretty young and new at this.”

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