The Horse Heaven Hills AVA is located in south-central Washington — its southern border running 50 miles wide along the Columbia River. From the Columbia River, the AVA runs 20 miles north to the southern border of the Yakima Valley AVA.
The area takes its name from an early pioneer who said, upon seeing the region and its wide prairies and expanses, ‘‘Surely this is Horse Heaven!”
Horse Heaven Hills is comprised of 570,000 acres, of which 15,532 are planted in wine grapes, representing 27% of Washington’s total grape production and the source of five 100-point wines produced in Washington.
Two-thirds of the acreage is planted to red wine grapes and one-third to white wine grapes. For reds, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate. Whites are almost evenly split between Chardonnay and Riesling.
The area is among Washington’s warmer growing regions, allowing a wide variety of grapes to ripen successfully. Many vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills are planted on south-facing slopes, providing for extended sun exposure.
Elevations within the AVA range from 200 feet above sea level along the Columbia River to 1,800 feet at the northern boundary.
There are three main soil types in the area — wind-blown sand and loess, Missoula Flood sediment, and hill slope rubble from the Columbia River basalt bedrock. Each of these provides well-drained soils suitable for vinifera.
Like many of eastern Washington’s growing regions, Horse Heaven Hills enjoys an arid and semi-arid continental climate, receiving an average of between 6 and 9 inches of precipitation annually. Irrigation is therefore required to grow vinifera grapes.
Pressure differentials cause significant winds in the Horse Heaven Hills. These winds reduce canopy size and toughen grape skins, as well as protect against mold and rot. The nearby Columbia River also has a moderating effect on temperatures, reducing the risk of early and late season frosts, which can be a problem in nearby areas.
The Horse Heaven Hills had its first vinifera plantings in 1972 at what is now Champoux Vineyards, and vineyard designated bottles — particularly cabernet sauvignon — from this site are some of Washington’s most coveted and most expensive wines.
Facts About the AVA
- Established in 2005
- Naturally bounded on the north by the Yakima Valley AVA and on the south by the Columbia River.
- Approximately 66% red to 34% white.
- Primary grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Syrah.
- Proximity to the Columbia River creates 30% more wind while moderating temperature extremes, providing steep south-facing slopes for optimum vineyard locations and providing well-drained, sandy-loam soils.
- There are at least 25 vineyards, six commercial wineries and two tasting rooms — Columbia Crest and the Estate at Destiny Ridge — within the region.
- Over 150 wineries use and declare ‘Horse Heaven Hills AVA’ on their label.
Outstanding vineyard sites that have been developed in this area include Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard, Columbia Crest, Champoux Vineyards, Destiny Ridge, Mercer Canyons, Coyote Canyon, McKinley Springs, Double Canyon, Martinez & Martinez, Gunselman, Phinny Hill, Zyphyr Ridge, Lady Hawk, Wallula and Discovery Vineyard.
Champoux Vineyards originally began as Mercer Ranch Vineyard planted by Don and Linda Mercer in the early 70’s and 80’s. The Mercers planted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Block 1 of the vineyard in 1972. They were the first wine grapes planted in Horse Heaven Hills.
In 1996, Paul and Judy Champoux and a small group of winery owners who had been customers for many years, bought the vineyard and named it Champoux Vineyards. It is now owned collectively by Quilceda Creek Vintners, Woodward Canyon, Andrew Will Winery and Powers Winery.
Paul Champoux managed the vineyard from 1989 until 2014. He greatly improved the quality of this 188-acre vineyard with his canopy management and nutritional balance programs, turning it into one of the most highly acclaimed vineyards in the world.
The fruit from this site has been used by Quilceda Creek almost exclusively for its Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon since 2001. Since then Quilceda Creek has garnered classic 96 to 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate, including 5 perfect 100-point scores; a true testament to what can be achieved consistently from this amazing place.
Since opening its doors in 1983, Columbia Crest Winery has become the single largest wine making facility in the state of Washington. Overlooking the Columbia River in Paterson, WA., Columbia Crest should be on everyone’s bucket list of “must-see” wineries.
Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyards
The vineyards at Canoe Ridge Estate, one of several vineyards in Eastern Washington owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, is home to 559 acres dedicated to producing elegant, refined wines with concentration and structure.
Canoe Ridge Estate’s windswept site in the Horse Heaven Hill’s AVA provides Chateau Ste. Michelle with low-fertility soil, constant sun and steady winds coming up from the Columbia River — the perfect model for premium growing conditions.
In 1991, Chateau Ste Michelle planted its first vineyard at Canoe Ridge Estate on the south face of the ridge that rises 950 feet above sea level. The vineyard’s steep slope and proximity to the river combine to alleviate frost pockets and seasonal temperature extremes.
Chateau Ste. Michelle wines produced from grapes grown at Canoe Ridge Estate have earned scores of 90 or higher on more than 40 vintages. Its Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot have each received Wine Spectator “Top 100” honors.
To learn more about Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyards, visit: www.ste-michelle.com/estate-vineyards/canoe-ridge-estate.
Canoe Ridge Vineyard
There is another vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA called Canoe Ridge Vineyard. Owned by Seattle-based Precept Wine, this 181-acre vineyard shares a property line with Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard, so the growing conditions of the two sites are pretty much identical.
Canoe Ridge Vineyard has the advantage of maturity (some vines are 28 years old), producing arguably the best Merlot in the best Merlot-producing region in the country, in addition to award-winning Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and more.
Planted in 1989, the vineyard’s latitude and south and north-facing orientations help vines soak up more than 17 hours of sunshine per day at the peak of summer, resulting in rich, fully mature flavors and supple tannins.
The remote location of the Canoe Ridge Vineyard site didn’t lend itself to having a tasting room on Horse Heaven Hills, so the decision was made to open a tasting room in Walla Walla in 1994.
Cited on the National Register of Historic Places, the Canoe Ridge tasting room is located in a renovated trolley station on West Cherry Street in the Westside Region of the Walla Walla AVA. It’s worth a trip to Walla Walla just to see the building. Learn more about Canoe Ridge wines by visiting: www.canoeridgevineyard.com.
Alder Ridge Vineyard
Also owned by Precept Wine, Alder Ridge Vineyard, at 1,125 acres, is one of the state’s largest and most coveted vineyards. Sitting on a rolling plain atop a steep bluff above the Columbia River, its first vines were planted in 1997. The vineyard ranges in elevation from 300 to 1,000 feet above sea level.
Natural wind and air drainage protects the vines from the dramatic weather changes, both in the summer and winter. Alder Ridge grapes are known for their exceptionally long hang time. The moderating effect of the river on summer heat spikes and winter freezes gives the Cabernet for which the vineyard is known tougher skins and firm tannins.
In all, Alder Ridge is planted with 28 varieties of grapes, including some of Washington’s most sought-after Rhone varieties. You can find Alder Ridge wines at many retail outlets in the Pacific Northwest.
For over 125 years, the Mercer family has been stewards of the same land in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. They got their start raising livestock and growing row crops.
In 1972, Don and Linda Mercer planted the first wine grapes at Mercer Ranches. Those grapes, in fact, were the first wine grapes planted in the Horse Heaven Hills. Today, the Mercer Family farms a total of 12,000 acres along the Columbia River, 2,000 acres of which are planted in wine grapes.
The varietals they grow on those 2,000 acres are Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Syrah, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Grenache, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Malbec and Mourvedre.
The farm’s remaining acres are planted in potatoes, carrots, onions, kale, wheat, broccoli, garlic, corn and been seeds, and alfalfa. One wonders if they ever considered making potato wine.
The work for the Mercer family doesn’t stop with growing the grapes. They also produce a wide variety of wines that can be enjoyed at Mercer Estates Winery and tasting room on Lee Road in Prosser. To learn more about the Mercer family’s contribution to the Washington wine industry, visit: www.mercerwine.com. They also have a separate website for their Mercer Canyons Vineyards. That website is www.mercercanyons.com.
When Jarrod and Ali Boyle christened their land in the Horse Heaven Hills of Washington, the choice of its name came easily. Providence played a strong role in the birth of Alexandria Nicole Cellars and its estate vineyard. Paying tribute to that force, they named their vineyard Destiny Ridge.
Jarrod was born in Prosser and learned the secrets of successful vineyard management as assistant viticulturalist under the tutelage of Dr. Wade Wolfe when both worked for Hogue Cellars in Prosser. It was here that wine grape growing and winemaking became Jarrod’s passion.
While working for Hogue Cellars, Jarrod was in charge of inspecting grapes and making grower recommendations to help grape varietals achieve their desired characteristics.
One day, a routine inspection of a vineyard on Horse Heaven Hills turned into a major shift in Jarrod’s career and his life. It was that day he noticed a nearby piece of barren land overlooking the Columbia River. The land had a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. From that moment forward, visions of vineyard blocks danced in Jarrod’s head.
Originally, the plan for the vineyard was to use its fruit to produce small case lots for other wineries. When the vines came into full production, however, the fruit produced was of such amazing quality, Jarrod’s thoughts turned to a winery that would produce his own wines from grapes grown on Destiny Ridge Vineyard.
The state-of-the-art Alexandria Nicole Cellars winery (named for Ali Boyle, Jarrod’s wife) was constructed in September of 2004. It was designed to suit the production of small-lot handcrafted wines.
Overlooking the majestic Columbia River, the site of Alexandria Nicole Cellars’ winery and vineyard provide an awe-inspiring backdrop for special events for wine and food enthusiasts and for community fundraisers. Private tours and barrel tastings can be arranged for an unforgettable experience.
Located in Paterson, WA., Destiny Ridge Vineyard is now home to 267 acres of grape vines that produce 22 varietals, a production facility where 10,000 cases of estate-grown wines are produced, four Tiny Houses providing a simple, yet breathtaking escape and The Estate at Destiny Ridge –Washington’s premier, luxurious event and wedding venue.
In addition to the Estate at Destiny Ridge, Alexandria Nicole Cellars has two other tasting rooms where you can enjoy the fruits of their labor. They have a tasting room in Prosser at 2880 Lee Road and in Woodinville in the Hollywood District at 14810 Northeast 145th Street.
Learn more about Jerrod and Ali’s journey from dream to reality by visiting: alexandrianicolecellars.com.
Coyote Canyon Vineyard
Coyote Canyon Vineyard, located in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, is a reflection of the Andrews Family’s lifelong tradition of cultivating the land. The unique climate and terroir of Horse Heaven Hills have nurtured Coyote Canyon Vineyard’s award-winning grapes since 1994.
The 1,125-acre vineyard provides grapes to nearly 30 of the Northwest’s top wineries to produce some of the best, highest rated wines in the world. Its largest contract is with Columbia Crest Winery in Paterson, WA.
However, Mike and Marti Andrews don’t sell all of their grapes to other people to make wine. They keep enough to make wine for their own Coyote Canyon Winery, which is located in the Winemaker’s Loft in Prosser’s Vintners Village. Read the Andrews “vineyard to bottle” story by visiting: www.coyotecanyonwinery.com.
Stemming from 70 years of farming and 37 years of wine growing excellence, the McKinley Springs Vineyard grows more than 23 varieties of wine grapes on its 2,800-acere estate vineyard in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. It is one of the largest continuous vineyards in the state of Washington.
While consistently supplying the most prestigious winemakers in the Pacific Northwest with award winning fruit, it keeps a supply of grapes to sell at its own McKinley Springs Winery in the Winemaker’s Loft in Prosser’s Vintners Village.
Winemaker Doug Rowell uses his estate-grown grapes to make Chenin Blanc, Viognier. Cabernet Sauvignon Rose’, a Bordeaux Blend, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The winery also sells a special selection of Library wines.
To learn more about McKinley Springs’ winery and estate vineyards, visit: www.mckinleysprings.com.
Columbia Crest Winery
An article about Horse Heaven Hills wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Columbia Crest Winery. One of several wineries in Washington State owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest opened its doors in 1983. Since then, it has become the single largest wine making facility in the state of Washington.
When you arrive at Columbia Crest, you will be offered several wine tasting options. At no charge, the tasting room staff will offer you samples of several of Columbia Crest’s award-winning wines.
For $5 per person (complimentary for wine club members) you will be treated to a flight of Columbia Crest’s Reserve wines. These wines represent the best vintages that Columbia Crest has to offer. They are hand-crafted, made in limited quantities, and are exclusively available for tasting room guests and wine club members. The tasting fee is refundable with Reserve bottle purchase.
For $25 per person ($20 for Wine Club members) you can take a guided, behind-the scenes tour of the winery. Led by a knowledgeable Columbia Crest staff member, this is an in-depth tour of the winery’s production facility.
And finally, the winery offers what they call their “Food & Wine Pairing Experience.” For $25 per person ($20 for Wine Club members), you’ll be treated to a guided wine and small bites tasting experience.
In a private setting at the winery, you will enjoy unique gourmet bites selected to bring out the best in specially selected Columbia Crest wines. The tasting lasts approximately 45 minutes. NOTE: Appointments are required for this experience. To make a reservation, call the Tasting Room at (509) 875-4227.
To learn more about Columbia Crest and all the wines they produce, visit: www.columbiacrest.com.
Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers
In 2004, the wine grape growers of Horse Heaven Hills got together to form a group to spread the word about their incredible wine grape region.
To celebrate education in all fields of viticulture and enology, the growers award two scholarships each year to students who are interested in making grape growing and wine making their profession.
To raise money to fund the scholarships, the growers hold an annual Trail Drive and Barbeque on the third Saturday in July. The 2018 Trail Drive will be held on Saturday, July 21 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. followed by the Barbeque from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Crow Butte Park.
The Trail Drive doesn’t have anything to do with horses (besides the fact that it is taking place in Horse Heaven Hills). When you buy a ticket for the event, you are given a map of the vineyards participating in the Trail Drive.
You decide which vineyards you wish to visit, then, following the map, drive to your chosen vineyards at your own pace. You can visit all of the vineyards on the map, or just a few. You’ll meet the owners of each vineyard at each stop, where you’ll be treated to samples of wine made from grapes grown in that vineyard.
For those who prefer not to drive from vineyard to vineyard, the growers have you covered. For an extra charge, they’ll take you on a VIP bus tour of all of the participating vineyards.
Through member dues and its annual Trail Drive, the Horse Heaven Wine Growers have raised more than $30,000 to fund their scholarship program since 2006. The program is managed by the Washington Wine Industry Foundation.
To learn more about the Horse Heaven Wine Growers, and to purchase tickets for the 2018 Trail Drive, visit: www.horseheavenhillswinegrowers.org.