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Originally published Friday, July 26, 2013 at 11:05 AM

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Wahluke: Washington's unsung slope for plush red wines

From here come cabs, merlots and syrahs to drink all summer long — not necessarily for special occasions but rather to mark the end of the day, to celebrate meat on the grill or complement pizza in the oven.

Special to The Seattle Times

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r90s, Thanks for the feedback. Mattawa, by any measure, is a small town. In fact, I... MORE
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IT IS BLISTERING in the height of summer, a dusty, seemingly endless tract of land with little more than orchards and vineyards.

The Wahluke Slope might not look much different from other parts of Washington's arid Columbia Valley, but for wine lovers, it delivers reds of quality and value.

The 13-mile-wide area east of Yakima is surrounded on three sides by the Columbia River. The main town is Mattawa, home to a Mexican restaurant, a convenience store and little else.

But ask winemakers about the Wahluke Slope, and they describe it as something just this side of paradise. It is the backbone of the Washington wine industry, thanks to the miracle of irrigation, which allows farmers to grow grapes where only sagebrush should thrive.

From here come cabs, merlots and syrahs that are plush and affordable, red wines to drink all summer long — not necessarily for special occasions but rather to mark the end of the day, to celebrate meat on the grill or complement pizza in the oven.

"The slope is a great place," says Doug Gore, executive vice president for winemaking, viticulture and operations at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "It doesn't produce heavy tannins, not like Red Mountain. It's a lot more approachable."

And affordable. Land is less than half of what comparable acreage on Red Mountain might cost. Water is not an issue — as it is in other areas — because of the Columbia Basin Project, a federally funded irrigation system fueled by Grand Coulee Dam.

Growing grapes on the Wahluke Slope is a breeze compared with other parts of the valley. Vintage after vintage, winemakers can count on the region, thanks to less-damaging winters and consistently warm, dry springs, summers and autumns. When harvest beckons each Labor Day, syrah and merlot from the Wahluke Slope often arrive first to Washington crush pads.

Gore is so enamored with the Wahluke Slope, he took the lead on Seven Falls, a new Ste. Michelle label. The name comes from seven former waterfalls along the Columbia River as it flowed past the slope. The stretch of river, known as Priest Rapids, dropped 72 feet in nine miles. Those waterfalls vanished beneath a reservoir created when Priest Rapids Dam was completed in 1961.

Josh Maloney made red wine for Chateau Ste. Michelle before moving to Milbrandt Vineyards near Mattawa. He's intimate with the grapes grown here, and understands why they deliver quality and price.

"We don't get a lot of dense tannins" from the fruit, Maloney says. "It's always predictable and always ahead of the frost. It can make a $15 wine that is just exceptional."

Three summer reds to drink now:

Seven Falls 2010 merlot, $15. Smooth, rich and approachable, just like Washington merlot should be.

Milbrandt Vineyards 2011 Traditions cabernet sauvignon, $16. Complexity and elegance combine with velvety structure for a stunning and affordable red.

Boomtown 2010 syrah, $16. A second label for Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla, Boomtown delivers rich, ripe flavors at a great price.

Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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