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Walla Walla Wine 101 – The Red Wine Varietals of Walla Walla

Walla Walla wine continues to receive worldwide acclaim, yet there is no single varietal that Walla Walla is best known for. Ask five collectors what their favorite Walla Walla wine is, and you’ll most likely receive five different answers.

Walla Walla Wine 101 will showcase the varied and unique terroir, varietals, and winemaking style you’ll discover when you visit Walla Walla. Let’s get the lay of the land (pun intended). 

Varietals of Walla Walla – Appellation Overview

Walla Walla Wine - Seven Hills Vineyard
Seven Hills Vineyard

The Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is made up of 2,933 acres of vineyards located in Southeastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon. Of these vineyards, the top five varietals of Walla Walla are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.  Pretty standard fare, certainly. However, a visit to the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance website allows you the ability to filter wineries by 53 wine offerings, everything from Albarino to Zinfandel.

With this much variety represented, providing an exhaustive exploration of each would be a daunting undertaking. It would also make for some pretty intense reading. Instead, this installment of Walla Walla Wine 101 will serve as a highlight reel of red wine varietals grown in Walla Walla to help guide your wine tasting itinerary when you visit Walla Walla.

Walla Walla Red Wine Varietals

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot make up more than half of the vineyard plantings in the  Walla Walla Valley AVA. You would be hard-pressed to visit a Walla Walla winery and not find at least one of these varietals on the tasting sheet. 

Walla Walla Wine - Woodward Canyon
Photo credit: Colby Kuschatka

alla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon
If Cab is King to you, then you’ll want to make a point to visit our first showcase winery. Traveling into Walla Walla from Highway 12, you’ll drive right past Woodward Canyon… but don’t drive right past. Woodward Canyon is an absolute must for Cab-lovers, so pull off the highway and start your vacation here. Their Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon was the first Washington wine to make the Wine Spectator Top 10, and their Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon has received 46 90+ point scores since the 1992 vintage. Enjoy a tasting flight that includes these standout Cabernet Sauvignon offerings as well as Chardonnay and Merlot. Woodward Canyon’s charming restored 1870s farmhouse hosts the tasting experience, but they also have a beautiful patio and picnic tables where you can enjoy a delicious picnic lunch if you wish. Start your Walla Walla wine tasting experience at one of the wineries that started it all:  founded in 1981, Woodward Canyon was the second winery in the Walla Walla Valley, right behind another Cabernet Sauvignon standard-bearer, Leonetti Cellar.

Walla Walla Wine - K Vintners
K Vintners

Walla Walla Syrah
Next up, let’s talk about Syrah. You’ll find more than a few exceptional producers of Syrah in the Walla Walla Valley, but if you love Syrah and a LOT of it, then K Vintners needs to be on your Walla Walla tasting itinerary. At the helm is the larger-than-life Charles Smith, a former rock band manager who released his first vintage of Walla Walla Syrah in 2001 and has been raking in awards ever since. Most notably, Charles Smith is one of only four Washington winemakers to receive a perfect 100-point score (for the K Vintners 2006 Royal City Syrah).

Walla Walla Wine - Charles Smith Wines Downtown
Charles Smith Wines Downtown

A visit to Charles Smith Wines World Headquarters in downtown Walla Walla affords the savvy Syrah collector an opportunity to taste multiple single-vineyard Syrah offerings under the K Vintners brand, as well as wines from Charles Smith’s Substance, SIXTO, and ViNO CasaSmith brands. Visit during the spring and summer months to taste at the original K Vintners tasting room up Mill Creek Road. We dare you to leave without “Que Sera Sera” stuck in your head.

Walla Walla Merlot
Finally, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention Merlot in a Walla Walla Wine 101 post. Right next to Woodward Canyon is a beautiful old Frenchtown schoolhouse, which was reimagined in the 1980s as L’Ecole No 41 winery. Their Estate Merlot is made up of wine grapes from Seven Hills Vineyard and Ferguson Vineyard, a part of Walla Walla’s SeVein Vineyard project.

Walla Walla Wine - L'Ecole

If you’re into wines with a sense of place, these are two places in Walla Walla you’ll want to learn more about. The knowledgeable and engaging tasting room staff at L’Ecole can tell you all about it when you visit – no need to traipse into a rocky vineyard (unless you’re into that kind of thing).

Of course this merely scratches the surface of the red wine varietals of Walla Walla. We would need to write a book to be able to name all of the incredible producers making Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot. And that’s not to mention the producers making harder-to-find red wine varietals (though we’ll try to sneak a few in). If your palate likes to venture off the beaten path, then you’ll want to visit Reininger Winery for Carmenere, Saviah Cellars for Tempranillo, and Seven Hills Winery for Petit Verdot.

Walla Walla wine is as diverse and delightful as the people who make it, but don’t just take our word for it. Plan a visit to Walla Walla to experience these and countless other red wine varietals for yourself. 

In the next installment of Walla Walla Wine 101, we’ll explore the white wine varietals of Walla Walla Valley.