Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Daring And Diverse Wine Flows From The Columbia Gorge AVA

About 75 miles east of Portland, Oregon, lies the Columbia Gorge – one of the world’s most climatically diverse places.

Article and Photos by Dave Nershi, CSW

Vino-Sphere Publisher


Diversity Makes The Difference

As part of our efforts to cover outstanding wine and wine regions, I’ve travelled frequently to Oregon and Washington State. A recent trip focused on AVAs that straddle the border between the two states and landed me in the Columbia Gorge, a new destination for me.

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Columbia Gorge Mt. Hood Winery - VientoThe base camp for this exploration was Hood River, Oregon. The city is located at the crossroads of the Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade Mountains. Mt. Hood, with its 11,235-foot summit, sits at the southern border of the county. The steep walls of the gorge, coupled with rapid temperature changes, force strong winds to blow through Hood River, giving it claim to the title of Windsurfing Capitol of the World. In addition to windsurfing and kiteboarding, Hood River has some of the best kayaking, mountain biking, downhill and cross-country skiing, and hiking areas anywhere in the country.

Columbia Gorge is 40 miles wide. The western side is cooler and enjoys maritime breezes and transitions to warmer and drier conditions moving east. The region also varies in elevation, ranging from sea level to 2,000 feet. With such diverse conditions, a wide array of grapes from A to Z (Arneis to Zinfandel) thrive.

Soon after checking into the Hood River Hotel in which is located the stellar Broder Øst Nordic restaurant, it was time to drink in the delicious diversity of the Columbia Gorge. Our first stop was the Mt. Hood Winery.

An Introduction To Gorge Wines

Mt. Hood Winery sits on 20 acres of estate vineyards on a century-old farm in the beautiful Hood River Valley. The winery is owned by brothers Steve and Don Bickford. In 1909 their great-grandparents purchased 20 acres of orchard along with the local grocery story, which they ran until 1955.

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Three quarters of the acreage is planted with pear trees. Apples are also grown but are now overshadowed by the acres devoted to wine grapes. Nestled among the vines is a showcase tasting room with soaring ceilings, a 30-foot bar and a custom fireplace.

Rich Cushman is the winemaker for Mt. Hood and, in addition to overseeing that award-winning line, he also shares the winemaking facility for his own line of wine, Viento. Viento Wines has a separate tasting room.

The diversity of wine in the Columbia Gorge is eye-opening. During an enjoyable wine dinner, we sampled the Viento Wines Cuvée Diamante Rosé and Mt. Hood 2016 Gewürztraminer. The sparkling rosé demonstrates the range of Gorge grapes in one glass, with Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Riesling and Pinot Gris. The Gewürztraminer has an intoxicating bouquet and was a surprising find in the middle of what some undoubtedly think of as Pinot Noir country.

Sunshine MillThe Columbia Gorge is slightly cooler than Willamette Valley and the predominant soils are the results of volcanic activity and glaciers. Vineyards receive alpine influence from the nearby Cascades as well as a maritime influence from ocean breezes from the west. Most of wineries in this dual-state AVA produce less than 5,000 cases per year.

The 2017 Mt. Hood Chardonnay has lush vanilla crème notes along with apple and pear flavors. Another flagship bottle is the 2016 Mt. Hood Pinot Noir, which we enjoyed with Fennel & Herb Stuffed Porchetta with Apple Chutney.

As if to drive home the fresh approach of Gorge wines, we closed the tasting with the 2016 Mt. Hood Barbera, Gunkel Vineyard, and the Viento Wines 2009 Icewine (Riesling and Gewürztraminer).

A Deeper Dive Into The Gorge

Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza and Winery in The Dalles should be a stop for any visitor to the Columbia Gorge. The Sunshine Mill milled wheat on the property for more than 130 years. It was the first building in The Dalles to have electricity and the original Thomas Edison Motor can still be seen in the mill. The Sunshine Biscuit Company once owned the property and used the flour to make Cheez-Its.

Today the mill houses Quenett, Copa Di Vino and Oregon Mountain Estate Pinot Noir wine brands owned and operated by James and Molli Martin, both from The Dalles. A quirky, whimsical and historic destination, the mill welcomes more than 5,000 persons a month during the summer.

Copa Di Vino entered the national spotlight when James pitched his idea for wine in a glass -- ready to drink without the need for a bottle, corkscrew or glass – on the popular TV program Shark Tank. The Sharks passed on his proposal not once but twice. James and Molli went on to make the dream a reality and today Copa Di Vino is the leading producer of wine by the glass in the US, with total sales in excess of $60 million.

Not only has Copa Di Vino become a wine juggernaut, but its success has meant employment for more than 60 employees. The Martin’s 110-acre Pinot Noir vineyard is the largest single planting vineyard in the Columbia Valley.

While the mill itself is a wine bar and event space, the former warehouse has been transformed to a tasting room. There we tasted a selection of Quenett, Oregon Mountain Estate, and 15 Mile wines. 15 Mile Winery has a large local following and is one of the few that distributes wine in kegs.

Standout wines include: 15 Mile 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Quenett 2014 Quenett du Pape, Oregon Mountain Estate 2015 Natasha Pinot Noir and the 15 Mile High Tension. The Quenett du Pape is a red wine homage to Châteauneuf du Pape and the High Tension is a Syrah, Barbera, and Merlot blend.

Wy'East VineyardsA High Altitude Visit

Perched at 1,600 feet is the Wy’East Vineyard, one of the highest elevation vineyards in the state. With a sweeping vista that included a view of Mt. Hood, this proved to be an ideal site for a Wy’East tasting.

The vineyard includes 10-foot fencing to keep out the elk, cougars and bears. Located above the level of the prehistoric Missoula Flood, the vineyard is primarily Culbertson soil, a volcanic soil that is well drained. It’s unlike other soils in the Gorge. Due to the elevation, the vineyard with its Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ripens later than others in the area with harvest sometimes as late as November.

More “down to earth” is the Blue Chip Vineyard and tasting room (600 feet). By design, the tasting room resembles a roadside fruit stand from the road. The pet-friendly tasting room features a beautiful patio overlooking a waterfall and pond.

The wines are impressive. The 2016 Pinot Gris is spot on with bracing acidity and refreshing fruit. The 2016 Carménére is sourced from the Echo West Vineyard and dishes up round red fruit and minerality. The best sip was the 2014 Vinette’s Cuvée made with Pinot Noir grapes from the oldest plantings in the high elevation vineyard. It has a distinctive flavor with warming raspberry flavors enhanced by 10 months of aging in French oak.

Columbia Gorge Winemakers Columbia Gorge Winemaker Wrap-Up

At Hood River’s upscale 3 Rivers Grill winemakers from Phelps Creek Vineyards, The Pines, Stave and Stone and Wy’East gathered to share wine and discuss the uncommon qualities of the Columbia Gorge AVA.

“It’s different because winemakers can access fruit from both sides (of the Columbia River),” said Bob Morus, winegrower and president at Phelps Creek. “The AVA dramatically changes characteristics from west to east. There’s a lot of diversity.”

Diversity indeed! Wines ranged from Stave & Stone 2018 Terry Lynn Petillant Naturel, a Pinot Noir sparkler made in the ancient style, to The Pines 2017 Old Vines Zinfandel, Columbia Valley. Stave & Stone opened in 2015 and is gaining well-deserved attention. Rich Cushman is the winemaker.

I was surprised to learn Zinfandel is growing in this area, let alone Old Vines Zinfandel. Zinfandel was planted in The Dalles in the 1890s and old vines of Zinfandel are growing in Columbia Valley, according to Lonnie Wright, owner and grower at The Pines. It is rich, smooth and complex.

Chardonnay shines in the Gorge and we enjoyed the 2016 Wy’East Chardonnay and the Phelps Creek 2015 Lynette Chardonnay, made with Dijon clones. This was ideal with the panko crusted Halibut Almandine served with cranberry and citrus butter sauce. A welcome treat was the yet unreleased 2016 Phelps Creek “Old” Lynette Chardonnay, aged for 20 months in oak puncheons.

Lest we forget, Columbia Gorge produces sensational Pinot Noir. We explored a quartet of Pinot Noir: an encore from Wy’East, the 2016 Phelps Creek Cuvée Alexandrine, Stave & Stones acclaimed 2016 Artur Legacy Pinot Noir, and the spectacular 2011 Phelps Creek Regina. The Regina Pinot Noir is made with the Pommard clone as is the Artur.

The Columbia Gorge AVA, merging the best of Washington and Oregon states, is the creative frontier for winemaking in the Pacific Northwest.

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