Washington state's 15th AVA, the Royal Slope

As a Winerabbler, I’m pretty curious about wine and gather you are too since you’re here! So when I first heard that the Royal Slope in Washington state had been designated a new wine appellation, I wanted to know more.

Before I get started, if you missed my two previous posts on the Royal Slope, you might want to first catch up on them. Click here and here to read them.

An appellation is a legally recognized wine-growing area. In the US, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, is in charge of determining wine appellations. Officially, appellations are called American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs for short.

In order for an AVA to be designated by the TTB, its unique attributes must be explained. The Royal Slope wouldn’t have been named an appellation without first proving that it was special and different from the surrounding areas. With that in mind, I decided to dive headfirst and find out what is so special about the Royal Slope.

The French use a term called terroir, pronounced ter-wa, to describe the many aspects that influence a wine-growing region. Click here to read my Wine 101 on terroir. Worldwide, terroir is used to explain what makes different grape-growing regions unique.

While doing my research, I got the opportunity to speak with both Mike Januik, winemaker at Novelty Hill and Januik Wines, and Ed Kelly, vineyard manager at Stillwater Creek Vineyard, located in the new AVA. These men have an intimate relationship with the land and grapes grown there. And they generously shared their insights with me about what makes the Royal Slope unique.

Mike Januik

Mike Januik was instrumental in determining the grape varietals and clones planted at the Stillwater Creek Vineyard, starting back in 1999. The vineyard now has 230 acres of grapevines planted in 51 different blocks. Shortly after the Stillwater Creek Vineyard began producing, owner Tom Alberg created Novelty Hill Winery and asked Mike to be his head winemaker. With over 40 years in the wine industry, let’s just say Mike knows a thing or two about the terroir of the Royal Slope.

Ed Kelly

Ed Kelly was drawn to Washington after 30 years managing vineyards throughout California, including San Luis Obispo, Napa, and Sonoma. Shortly after his arrival, he was hired as the vineyard manager at Stillwater Creek Vineyard. For the last decade, Ed has nurtured the 16 different varietals of grapevines, all with the goal of producing the best fruit possible for the 40 wineries that make it into wine. Ed also has over 40 years in the wine industry!

After two very informative conversations, I have attempted to summarize why Mike and Ed believe the Royal Slope is unique from other AVAs in Washington

21 varietals of red and white grapes

The location and aspect of the Royal Slope make it perfect for growing many different varietals of both red and white grapes. The Royal Slope is 156,000 acres and successfully grows 21 different varietals. Nearby, the Walla Walla AVA is almost 320,000 acres– twice the size– yet grows only 4 additional types of grapes. What other AVA of its size can successfully grow so many different wine grapes? I can’t think of one!

These varietals are grown in the Royal Slope AVA:

  • Cabernet franc
  • Cabernet sauvignon
  • Cinsault
  • Grenache
  • Malbec
  • Merlot
  • Mourvèdre
  • Petit verdot
  • Pinot noir
  • Sangiovese
  • Tempranillo
  • Syrah
  • Chardonnay
  • Chenin blanc
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Pinot gris
  • Riesling
  • Roussanne
  • Sauvignon blanc
  • Semillon
  • Viognier

Elevation

In case you haven’t yet read my previous posts about the Royal Slope, it ranges in elevation from 600-1700 feet above sea level. In this case, being up at a higher elevation helps in a couple ways.

First, the area is less prone to frost than the surrounding land. This is important for two reasons; a grapevine that has recently come out of dormancy when a spring frost hits can be damaged and even die, and an early fall frost can damage any grapes that have not yet been harvested.

Secondly, grapes grown at higher elevations retain more natural acidity and wines with higher acid levels are more complementary with food!

Soil

The soil found in the Royal Slope AVA is sandy with fractured basalt. Sandy soils contain less organic matter, which means the grapevines are less vigorous. Less vigorous vines mean easier canopy management during the growing season. That makes Ed and his vineyard crew happy!

While the soil may be lacking organic matter, it certainly isn’t without abundant trace minerals. Vines crave minerals and the ones grown in the Royal Slope don’t have to stretch their roots far to find them. Much like vitamin supplements are good for our health, trace minerals are good for vine health.

Wind

Something really special happens with the wind on the Royal Slope. Cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean head inland and blow right through the appellation, on their way to the Columbia River. Similar to the Willamette Valley’s Van Duzer Corridor, these cooling winds help keep summertime temperatures in check.

Temperature

During the growing season, temperatures rarely get above 95°F, largely due to those ocean breezes. This is important because temperatures that hot cause the grapevines to temporarily shut down. And prolonged shutdowns delay ripening and push harvest out, increasing the threat of frost.

However, the nighttime temperatures play a role too. The swing between day and night temperatures is called the diurnal shift so the greater the difference, the higher the natural acidity developed in the grapes. The Royal Slope AVA can experience a diurnal shift of up to 50°F on a consistent basis while the grapes are growing and ripening. You bet you’re going to taste that acidity in the finished wines made from Royal Slope fruit!

Qualities in the Royal Slope wines

According to Ed and Mike, the wines made from the grapes grown there are very aromatic, have lots of mineral notes, and possess good structure. Mike told me he strives to make red wines with structure and suppleness and whites with texture and mouthfeel. I too found all these qualities when tasting through 13 bottles made from Royal Slope AVA fruit, some by Mike and some made by other winemakers, all using Ed’s grapes from Stillwater Creek Vineyard.

After tasting these wines, I also found some other common threads

Red wines

All 6 red wines had good acidity and texture, along with savory, herbaceous notes. We tasted Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet sauvignon, and a red blend, made by three different winemakers, yet similarities surfaced over and over. My notes seemed to be on repeat– “rosemary,” “bay leaf,” “savory”– over and over. That’s terroir, folks!

White wines

We opened 7 Royal Slope white wines; Viognier, Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Roussanne, and a white blend of Roussanne and Viognier. Four different wineries, 4 different winemakers… and again, some interesting similarities that can only be attributed to terroir. Besides great aromatics, minerality, and texture, I found notes of citrus and spicy ginger in every bottle! And these whites are versatile and very food-friendly. What more could you ask for?

And I’d like to give both Mike Januik and Ed Kelly a big shout-out for their time and willingness to share so much information about the Royal Slope with me… so I can pass it along to all of you! (Many thanks gentlemen!)

I encourage you to do a deep dive into the wines of the Royal Slope as we did. To whet your appetite, I’m publishing my tasting notes on all the Royal Slope wines over the next 13 days.

Check out my tasting notes on wines grown in the Royal Slope AVA:

2018 Baer Winery Shard

2017 Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Vineyard Syrah

2019 Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Vineyard Viognier

2016 Baer Winery Arctos Cabernet sauvignon

2019 Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Vineyard Sauvignon blanc

2018 Cairdeas Winery Concrete Syrah

2018 Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Vineyard Chardonnay

2016 Baer Winery Ursa

2019 Cairdeas Winery Roussanne

2017 Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Vineyard Cabernet sauvignon

2019 Cairdeas Winery Nellie Mae white blend

2016 Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Vineyard Merlot

2019 L’Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Stillwater Creek Vineyard Semillon