Part 2: Yellowhawk Sparkling Wine (read part 1 here)
Walla Walla is not a typical location for growing cool-climate grapes for making sparkling wine. Still, there are some cooler spots in this normally warm region. Was it always Yellowhawk Winemaker George-Anne Robertson’s plan to make sparkling wine in Walla Walla? Well, not exactly.
Let us clarify a few things about the process of making sparkling wine. Méthode Traditionnelle is considered the gold standard for making sparkling wine. Simply put, this involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle by adding yeast, among other processes, resulting in bubbles. Here are more specific details on the process.
Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne
The process is essentially the same except to be called Champagne, the grapes must come from the region of Champagne, France. Furthermore, Champagne can only be made primarily using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes.
A more economical method to create bubbles in wine is to inject wine with CO2 to induce carbonation. One might ask about Prosecco, made using the affordable Tank Method (Charmat) where the secondary fermentation occurs in a pressurized tank. Prosecco is made primarily from Glera grapes, which generally come from the Veneto region in Italy.
The Grapes of Yellowhawk
How does Yellowhawk grow cool-climate grapes in the warm climate of Walla Walla? It is all about location. Much of their 21 acres of vineyards planted are east-facing; thus, they are sheltered from the hot afternoon summer sun. Many experts, but not all, believe east-facing slopes can be cooler than west or south-facing slopes. Also, one advantage of east-facing slopes in the cool spring is that they warm up first, so if there is frost, it is minimized on east-facing slopes.
One of their popular wines is their Sparkling Semillon; this grape originates in Bordeaux, France. An added benefit at Yellowhawk is the wide range of high to low temperatures, bringing great structures and acidity.
Sparkling Rose Malbec is another “nontraditional” varietal used in sparkling wine, and this was my favorite. It has a light strawberry flavor and refreshing nose. The light pink color is from the minimal grape skin contact during fermentation. This grape is from Gamache Vineyards, east of Yellowhawk and north of Pasco. This site is known as a cooler site compared to Red Mountain and the Wahluke Slope. Cooler. Perhaps it is the higher elevation and the vineyard sitting on a white bluff that helps reflect some of the sunlight
We also tasted the Sparkling Chardonnay, which is also sourced from the Gamache Vineyards. It was crisp and refreshing, with a low alcohol level, which makes it a perfect backyard afternoon treat.
The Winemaker George-Anne Robertson
Saskatchewan, Idaho, New York, Walla Walla, and (almost) Japan are just a few places George-Anne has called home. She is originally from the small town (pop. 4,562) of Melville and studied in New York. She worked as a wine advisor in Sun Valley Idaho, and then ended up in Walla Walla.
While in Walla Walla, George-Anne enrolled at Walla Walla Community College in the Associate of Science (AS) Viticulture and Enology program. She took special classes on her passion, sparkling wine. In fact, she was ready to take this experiment and her ability to speak Japanese to make sparkling wine in Japan. All packed and ready to go, she ran into a slight problem. COVID-19 hit, and she could not travel to Japan.
However, her former instructor at Walla Walla Community College, Tim Donahue, knew Yellowhawk was looking for a new winemaker to make sparkling wine. He contacted her in 2021, and she has been busy ever since. Tim is now a consultant to Yellowhawk, and Tim’s 23 years’ experience in the wine and restaurant business has given her great insight.
George-Anne already has lined up sources of the traditional grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Any future talks on vineyards are about enough water. Walla Walla is in a desert climate, right? No, since most metrics say a desert receives less than 10 inches yearly. Much of Walla Walla gets over 18 inches in yearly rainfall. The region and water table benefit from the additional rainfall received in the Blue Mountains which are south and east of Walla Walla. Some of the regions receive over 56 inches of yearly rainfall.
Finally, there seems to be a shift in the perception that sparkling wine is just for special occasions. Research shows that, particularly among the under-40 crowd, sparkling wine is here to be enjoyed, regardless of a special event or a nice day on the back porch. So, it looks like Yellowhawk’s timing on focusing on sparkling wine is impeccable.
Editorial disclosure: lodging, beverages, and food generously provided