It’s a common perception that the entire state of Washington is lush and green, where the landscape is constantly shrouded in a light mist or rain. Yet the minute you cross the cascades on your way to central Washington, the landscape turns from green to a golden brown. For the rest of the state, east of the cascades, is arid and dry. The mighty Columbia River is the glue that holds the green and fertile orchards together, not growing too far from its bank.
And just off of the Columbia, up a good 800 feet or so is Lake Chelan and the corresponding and aptly named Lake Chelan (AVA). The lake is a sparkling blue/green gem nestled around towering mountain ranges on all sides. The lake provides a temperate temperature year round with the surrounding mountainsides holding temperatures consistent—warm in the summer and cold in the winter. If there is one thing that grapes like it’s consistency.
And when you have somewhat happy grapes (albeit consistently pissed off; makes for better flavors) you have one fantastic and unique growing location. That’s Lake Chelan.
The Lake Chelan Wine Valley is comprised of two main towns—Chelan and Manson to the north. The wineries are almost split 50/50 between the two towns. The town of Chelan and the vineyards within the town’s boundary lines have a primarily southern facing vineyard slopes. There’s a lot of sun in the summer months but with the tall mountains and the sun going down early in winter, they lose a lot of direct sunlight quickly.
The northern slopes, primarily in Manson get much more sun longer in the year, though both regions within the AVA still have a relative short growing season. You’re still up in the mountains and as that HBO series constantly lets you know, “Winter is coming.”
Because of the shorter growing season, longer hanging fruit, such as the Petite Sirah, just can’t make it in Chelan. But while one grape can’t make it, so many others can. Chelan sits nearly on the same latitude (47.8 degrees north) as both Bordeaux (44.8) and the Rhone Valley (44.7 degrees). That means, you’re going to have a similar temperatures and relative growing conditions when it comes to sunlight.
And when you have those similar temperatures and conditions, the wines that thrive in those wine valleys can also thrive in Chelan. We’re talking about all of France’s greatest hits—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. Yet you also get some equally fantastic and lesser known varietals, including a Grenache Blanc, a Cinsault, Viognier and Cabernet Franc.
While you might find a diverse collection of wine from winery to winery, one thing is nearly consistent among almost all of them—the view of the lake. Nearly all wineries have a sparkling view of that deep blue water. If the tasting room doesn’t, a nearby table or chair outside of the tasting room does. Some wineries even do tasting out on their lawn to take advantage of the breathtaking views. Note, I’m thinking this really happens more in the summer than in the winter.
The lake is fed by a river to the north and the snowpack in the summer. So it’s a tad cold to jump into, except in July and August. Speaking of those two months, the summertime and late springtime around those two months are the busiest. Lake Chelan is very seasonal. Crowded in the summer and quiet in the winter. If you are planning a late fall to early spring trip to the valley, check that the winery you want to visit is open.
It’s a destination region, with drive times from Seattle at 3.5-4 hours, depending upon traffic. Though once you get there, you’ll really not want to leave. That’s the Lake Chelan AVA.