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Uncorked: Washington wine’s minerality runs deep

It was a wine discussion that pleasantly evolved into a geology lecture. 

When I sat down for dinner with Erik McLaughlin, the vice president of sales and marketing at Seven Hills Winery, located in Walla Walla, Washington, he raved about the unique soil and the impact it has on wines from the area. 

Seven Hills’ bold Bordeaux blend, Pentad, only produced in years when the conditions dictate, had been my introduction to the winery. Fortunately, I got to know the other wines, because they are outstanding, as well.  

Winemaker spotlight

There can be hints of slate, limestone, chalk, iron and pencil shavings running through the various wines of Seven Hills. All are characteristics I would describe as minerality. It’s a pleasant component that adds depth to a wine. Sometimes it helps fruit flavors pop. Other times it serves as sort of a rock band drummer, as it keeps the other musicians on time while they follow its lead. 

“Seven Hills sits upon a 2,000-foot sheath of basalt,” McLaughlin said about the winery that in 2013 produced 19,000 cases, which he said was its most prolific production yet and an ideal number. 

“There’s an ancient basalt lava flow with a thin layer of marine sediment atop it called loess. It’s very fine marine sediment that was windblown 15,000 years ago, back when Montana and Alberta Canada were under water as an ocean and northern Idaho was a glacier,” he said.

Located in the foothills of the Blue Mountains in the southeastern corner of Washington, Walla Walla sits in an area known as the slack water terraces. It’s the lowest part of the valley, and there is more than just basalt, a dark volcanic rock, and marine sediment in the soils. 

The unique combination of mountains, glaciers and oceans gives Walla Walla an amalgamation of soil types. Even granite, which isn’t found anywhere else in the state, was found in Walla Walla. Its presence puzzled scholars for decades, until a theory that melting glaciers carried it from Montana and Canada was accepted. 

“Geology is sexy,” McLaughlin joked. “It’s interesting. But climate is by far more important. The soil has to be appropriate. But having the right climate is the No. 1 thing.”

What to buy 

• Seven Hills, Oregon Pinot Grigio, 2012 ($17). Despite their best efforts, Walla Walla just wasn’t right for Pinot Grigio.

“The original vision was to make all the red wines from Walla Walla in the Bordeaux varietals. We wanted to make all the whites in Alsatian style, but not necessarily from Walla Walla. After a couple years we realized Walla Walla wasn’t the right place to grow Pinot Grigio,” McLaughlin said.

So, they headed to the Umpqua Valley AVA, just south of the better known Willamette Valley in Oregon, to find what McLaughlin said are their “Goldilocks vineyards” to produce a wine “bone dry in style, that is a fun, versatile, food wine.”

• Seven Hills, Columbia Valley Riesling, 2011 ($15). Lemon and grapefruit notes are instantly recognizable. But, there’s a vibrant acidity and just-right mixture of sugar balance. The fruit comes from vines planted in 1978, some of the oldest vineyards in Washington, so the yields are very low. The old vines have gone deep and tap into a river rock like minerality that really intrigued. 

“With riesling, the No. 1 question I get asked is whether the wine is sweet or dry,” McLaughlin said. “I think that’s a uniquely American thinking that it must be one or the other. We have a high natural acidity and try to find the sweet spot with sugar to balance it out. Fruit, at first, stands out when you smell the wine, but acidity cleans it up at the end.”

• Seven Hills, Walla Walla Cabernet, 2011 ($45). In the coolest vintage since 1993 there is a higher acidity than normal. Blackberry, espresso, bay leaf and thyme flavors seamlessly mingle. An iron-like minerality reminds me of a summer day and keeps the wine fresh. The old-block cabernet is from the original 1980 planting, and the oldest commercial planting in Walla Walla Valley.

“The cab grows into fractured basalt,” McLaughlin said. “With 34-year-old vines that grow right into the rock, it’s not a coincidence there’s an iron-like characteristic in the wine.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for Shaw Media. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at

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