Medium ruby with nice aromatic intensity. Violet pastille, candied cherry, energetic raspberry, and a pinch of oak spice make a compelling statement. The body shows Oregon meeting German Spätburgunder, lithe with vivacious acidity and a low-level of grippy tannins. Tart cherry takes the command here. True to its source, even in warm vintages. (MW, May 2017)
Varietal: Pinot Noir
Region: Columbia Gorge AVA
Producer: Wy’east Vineyards
Pale lemon with subtle, youthful aromas of green apple, Bartlett pear, and slate. Dry leaning in to off-dry with noteworthy, well-integrated acidity. Length lacked luster, perhaps due to age. (MW, February 2017)
Varietal: Pinot Gris
Region: Columbia Gorge AVA
Producer: Wy’east Vineyards
Step one: Pull the cork on your winery’s award-winning Pinot Noir.
Step two: Fail to test the wine for flaws prior to pouring or test the wine and fail to notice flaws.
Step three: Pour two-thirds of the bottle to other tasting room guests (title shift, “How to Lose a Silly Number of Sales”).
Step four: Pour award-winning wine, while gloating over the award.
Step five: Fail to acknowledge a flaw (cork taint, aka TCA) when guest, backed by group of four other tasters, states the wine is corked. More specifically, taste the wine in question in front of the guest, then tell the guest that she is wrong. Do so while holding the questioned bottle, which now contains three ounces of award-winning Pinot Noir.
Step six: Admit to minimal wine experience during your time talking with this group.
Mission accomplished. Take a bow.
Last week’s Oregon Wine Symposium provided plenty of fodder for this curious mind. A few tidbits for you, my beloved readers, to ponder and peruse:
- 2015, the warmest vintage on record in the Willamette Valley, will become the norm between 2035—2045. The wine industry and many others (NASA, ski resorts, Inuit villages, farmers more broadly) take the projections seriously. We should all abide. While we often focus on air temperature increases, ocean and soil temperature rise both pose unique risks, many of which we do not understand well (or at all). Microbial life in the soils, for example, will change with the soil temperature increases we see today.
- The Willamette Valley and western Columbia Gorge, two of the only true cold-climate growing regions in the United States, are better suited for the warming future, though varietals will have to shift over time to accommodate the changing environment. Large diurnal temperature swings* have set the Willamette Valley apart from most growing regions in the United States. Unfortunately, average low temperatures have risen faster than average high temperatures, which will result in the Willamette Valley losing its diurnal edge.Some cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruit
- Consolidation within the wine industry, nationally and globally, inserts agitating slivers into the healthy flesh of Oregon wine. Large distributors have merged (Glazer’s and Southern should concern us all, for example), and the pace of vineyard and winery buy-outs has accelerated. This challenges the heart of Oregon wine, known rightly as the land of small, family wineries and vineyards with a keen interest in sustainable, life-giving operations. 5,000+ case wineries represent but a quarter of the Oregon industry, and vineyards over 50 acres hardly exist. You juxtapose this to California or even Washington, and Oregon looks like the land of peasant farmers on petite parcels. However, Oregon wine has justly earned a reputation for serious quality. The small-scale often allows winemakers to craft wines that sing siren songs to our passing ears.
- The fellowship and collaborative spirit within the Oregon wine industry sets the state apart from the rest of the wine world. Global wine industry folks have interned, settled, or partaken in the Oregon wine scene, and the outsiders and insiders unanimously rave about the familial nature of the Oregon wine industry. When combined with the small-scale production noted above, Oregon wines truly offer something unique to the world.
- What do we mean when we say we smell “minerality” in a wine? This word appears to serve as a catch-all to describe any aroma or flavor that doesn’t fall into the fruit or oak categories. Wine reviews and tasting notes have seen a significant rise in its use, and yet tasters disagree over what minerality actually means. Are the aromas actually reductive sulfides in the wine, or do vines transport mineral compounds from the soil into the wine? Science tells us that vines cannot carry soil minerals to the grapes, and yet savvy tasters frequently speak of smelling granite, flint, or wet stone in their wine. While the origin of the aromas remains elusive, know that higher acid wines more frequently carry these mineral notes, and Old World wines more commonly contain this needed acidity. I suggest tasting Chablis or Mosel Riesling to experience minerality yourself.
*Diurnal temperature swings refers to the gap in temperature between the daily high and daily low. The larger the diurnal shift, the more acidity the grapes will maintain in the evenings while still allowing for ripening thanks to the warm daytime highs.
As well as recline at Syncline’s estate winery (see photo and caption below). A recent visit of Syncline Cellars, near Lyle, Washington, left me giddy to write this post, as well as buy Syncline wines again and again. James and Poppie Mantone have crafted distinctive, memorable wines, while also creating an idyllic destination winery.
|Inclined to recline while drinking Syncline wine
Located along the eastern edge of the Columbia Gorge AVA, Syncline focuses on Rhone varietals. In the winery, James Mantone treats his wines with minimal to no oak, opting for concrete fermenters, and concrete or neutral oak for aging. Syncline uses native yeast fermentations whenever possible. When you combine the winemaking style, excellently sourced fruit, and Rhone varietals–both unique (Picpoul) and well-lauded (Syrah)–expect wine that will delight and intrigue, pure expressions of the land.
|Cement fermenter at Syncline Wine Cellars
- 2014 Gruner Veltliner ($20): From Underwood Mountain and Celilo Vineyard, this 100% Gruner Veltliner balances focused acidity with complex aromas of citrus, savory nuts, and grass. 550 cases. Delightful.
- 2013 Subduction Red ($20): Syncline’s flagship wine, with 2,500 of the winery’s 6,000 cases set aside for this gateway bottling. A blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, Counoise, Grenache, and Cinsault. Opens with floral aromas alongside juicy, red fruits including cherry and watermelon. Medium body with mild tannins–a smooth drink. Enjoy young. Excellent.
- 2013 Cinsault McKinley Springs Vineyard ($35): Rarely found as a single varietal wine, this Cinsault has a captivating nose of sweet prunes and luscious red fruits. A silky, smooth entrance leads to distinctive savory, spicy notes alongside the ripe fruit characteristics. Well balanced. 200 cases. Delightful.
- 2012 Syrah McKinley Springs Vineyard ($30): Crimson in color, a swirl releases aromas of blueberry and blackberry, as well as cocoa and a hint of smoke. At 14.4%, the wine fills your mouth with a delightful density. Medium-plus tannins. Dark and brazenly seductive. 350 cases. Excellent.
Next time you swing through the Columbia Gorge, do not miss your opportunity to visit Syncline Wine Cellars. Syncline exemplifies the best of what the Columbia Gorge AVA can offer–wines unlike any other in the Pacific Northwest.
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.
Barbera, the lesser known grape of Piedmont, Italy, often goes unnoticed by the broader wine community outside of Piedmont. However, show up at a restaurant in Barolo, Italy and you will see bottles of Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti* gracing the tables around you. This is significant as Barolo, a wine named after this restaurant’s commune and made with the Nebbiolo grape, has wine critics shooting fireworks out of their pens. While worthy of the praise, Barolo sits in the castles of the elite, largely untouchable due to its weighty fee–yes, get out your gold. Barbera, however, is the people’s wine.
It also pairs impeccably with your Thanksgiving feast. For those looking to support local wineries this holiday season, the Columbia Gorge AVA of Wagon** country provides. Barbera is grown in few vineyards outside of Italy, but has found a home within the Columbia Gorge. On a recent trip to the Gorge, I tasted multiple bottles of Barbera. All delighted and impressed on this two-day venture. Why Barbera this season? If your host uses as much butter and cream in the gravy and potatoes as mine, Barbera provides an outstanding balance of round, smile-inducing fruit–dark cherry and plum–and zesty acidic zip to cleanse your palate between savory bites. Recommendation: Marchesi Vineyards 2012 Estate Barbera.
For those without access to the boutique Barberas of the Columbia Gorge, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti will not disappoint. As always, talk with your local wine shop friends (they should be friends) for recommendations. These are not wines of greatness, but they are wines that delight–without breaking the bank ($9-$18 for many noteworthy bottles).
*Those new to Italian wine, Asti and Alba are the mentioned locales well known for growing Barbera, and you will find them labeled as Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti
**Wa-gon = Washington and Oregon