The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association (CGWA) recently hosted a Grand Tasting at Castaway in NW Portland. After a few days of pondering and reflecting on my notes, I feel more confident than ever that the Columbia Gorge AVA has a bigger and brighter future ahead (though perhaps we shouldn’t hope for “bigger”). This AVA garners relatively little press from regional and national press. As a consequence, it is a spring lilac, under-appreciated, that forces your attention when you get within proximity. Your senses awaken.
Why the Columbia Gorge? The breadth of styles and varieties, in conjunction with quality, provide consumers with a dreamy array of wines from a small geographic area–40 miles west to east. The Columbia Gorge quickly transitions from forested foothills with significant annual rainfall to elevated, sloping desert overlooking the Columbia River. You can taste sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet franc, syrah, grenache, and blends both traditional and path forging, all while only scratching the surface of this AVAs offerings. This blessing of diversity may also provide one of the confounding factors–what grapes thrive where? Experience, often through trial and error, has helped uncover the “spirit” grape(s) of many parcels of land. What works at a vineyard 2 or 3 miles west will likely pan out quite differently, or even fail, at your vineyard. All factors impacting terroir change drastically in short distances here.
Wines and Wineries of Note:
- 2012 Phelps Creek Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir: The Columbia Gorge need not play second fiddle to big sister Willamette Valley next door. Let the Gorge play a solo show! This age-worthy pinot opens with aromatic intrigue–strawberry, cherry, and aromas of a cool walk in a damp woodland. This wine is alive! Medium tannins and a wonderful balance of acidity keep us dancing instead of lounging. Pinot lovers, take note of this wine, and Phelps Creek. Stellar.
- Viento 2013 Savvy Sauvignon Blanc Allegre Vineyard: My mind immediately travelled to New Zealand. The zest, the brightness of this sauvignon blanc aligns wonderfully with my ideal for this varietal. A zip of lemon welcomes your senses, accompanied by melon and pineapple notes. This is summer in a bottle. Delightful. In the words of head winemaker Rich Cushman, expect “honest wines.” No enzymes, stabilizers, etc.
- The Pines 1852 2013 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel: Wow. A ripe, lush sensory experience with blackberry and resin. Avoids jaminess while plushly coating your mouth. Medium-plus tannins. Length abounds. Sourced from some of the oldest vines in the northwest, planted in the late 1800s. Stellar.
- Memaloose 2011 Mistral Ranch Estate: Southern Rhone blend of syrah (60%) and grenache (40%). Red fruit, caramel, earth, and fresh forest growth create a provocative wine. All wines produced now come from estate fruit. Excellent. Expect only neutral oak, and an Old World winemaking style when you drink Memaloose.
If you live in the Portland area, consider attending the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting in the future. Head to tasting rooms on a typical weekend, and you often have 30 seconds to hear the shtick from tasting room staffers before they must move on to the throngs of other guests. Understandable, but also disappointing if you appreciate discussing the details of the wine in your glass. However, attend this tasting, hosted by the CGWA, and you will have a unique opportunity to talk directly with many winemakers, owners, and/or heads of sales and tasting rooms (especially if you arrive early). These pillars of the industry can provide the details and stories behind the wine you enjoy.