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Columbia Gorge: A World of Wines in 40 Miles
By Rebecca Murphy
Jul 12, 2016
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The Columbia River forms 309 miles of the border between Washington and Oregon, with the 46th parallel forming the remainder to the eastern border with Idaho.  The Columbia River Gorge is a canyon running for approximately 90-miles--with walls as high as 4,000 feet--which the river cut through the Cascades Mountain Range.  The spectacular landscape, stunning beyond exaggeration, was created over millions of years involving active volcanoes and devastating floods.  It is the only sea level pathway through the Cascades.

The first time I flew into Portland, Oregon, I got a glimpse of the dramatically steep, sheer walls of a portion Gorge from the air.  It was an unforgettable sight.  During the ten years I lived there, I made the drive from Portland to Walla Walla along Gorge many times, and never tired of its grandeur.

As you enter the Gorge heading eastward, where the annual rainfall is 36 inches, the scenery is full of tall conifers and waterfalls.  By the time you reach The Dalles, about 40 miles further east, annual rainfall averages 14.5 inches and the landscape consists of arid, near desert grasslands.  At the eastern-most end of the Gorge, the average annual rainfall is 10 inches.  Elevations range between those 4,000-foot canyon walls to near sea level.  The soils are a patchwork of different types due to ancient volcano eruptions, mudflows, and the massive floods roaring through the region depositing sand and silt.  The area boasts 800 plant species, including 15 species of wildflowers endemic to the area.  Just think of how many different wine grape varieties could grow here. The Columbia Gorge Wineries Association counts 45 varieties at present.

Two AVAs are within the Columbia River Gorge, Columbia Gorge AVA and Columbia Valley AVA, each spanning the state lines.  The Columbia Gorge AVA became official in 2004.  I must admit I had not tasted many wines from the region until recently.  I was impressed by the quality and style of the wines I had the opportunity to taste.  Those that come from cooler spots, toward the west end of the Gorge or at higher elevations, are fresh and rather lean, with alcohol levels that barely get over 13 percent.  It’s a great place for aromatic whites and elegant reds.

Wines from the western end of the Columbia Gorge AVA bear more resemblance to those you expect from wines of the Willamette Valley than the wines of eastern Washington.  And…they can be spectacular.  Rich Cushman of Viento in Hood River, Oregon (who also makes wine for several other wineries), has a long-standing love affair with Riesling, and it shows.  He has one and a half acres of the grape planted, some of which he put in as early as 1981, without using American rootstock.  His 2012 Old Vines Dry Riesling leaps out of the glass like it was a few months old rather than four years.  It is young, fresh and lovely, with floral, Meyer lemon flavors that have a creamy texture in the mouth.  Maybe that’s because it is fermented in old, neutral French barrels and spends seven months on its lees.

At 1600 feet, the Reed family’s 30-year-old vineyard, called Wy’East (the native American name for Mt. Hood) is one of the highest in Oregon.  The 2015 Pinot Gris has subtle, dusty pear aromas, yet it is richly round in the mouth with pear and apple flavors brightened with crisp acidity.

Marlene and Thomas Woodward of Oak River Vineyard, near White Salmon, WA sell their organically grown grapes.  The 2013 Gewurztraminer from Brooks Wines in the Willamette Valley is a textbook version of the spicy grape with lychee and dried rose petal aromas, peachy, melon flavors, round and lush in the mouth, and balanced with vivid acidity.

Luke Bradford started Cor Cellars in Lyle, WA in 2004, and is just finishing a new winery and tasting room.  His 2014 52% Gewurztraminer/48% Pinot Gris blend cleverly named “Alba Cor” is from the Celilo Vineyard (WA).  It has a zesty lemon, pear candy aroma and round pear fruit that’s a bit sweet in the mouth, while nicely balanced with citrusy acidity.

The Columbia Gorge AVA must be especially helpful for Pinot producers on the Washington side, since the state is best known for its big reds.  The thought of a Pinot Noir grown in a region that produces great Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah is distressing.  But, as previously mentioned, the western side of the Gorge is a cool climate area, and I tasted several Pinot Noirs that I will be happy to have on my dinner table. 

The Wy’East Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 from 30-year-old Pommard clones has delectable aromas of raspberries and red cherries offset with an intriguing spicy, savory quality.  It’s light bodied in the mouth with gently rounded fruit and vivid acidity.

Poppy and James Mantone named their biodynamically-farmed vineyard Syncline for the nearby geological feature called Bingen Syncline.  It marks the spot where the Gorge begins to transition from rainy to arid.  Their 2013 Pinot Noir is very light and delicate with raspberry, cranberry fruit, zesty acidity and moderate tannins.  Their Pinot along with Chardonnay also goes into a non-vintage sparkling rose called Scintillation Brut.  It is deliciously clean and refreshing vibrantly crisp, with subtle raspberry fruit.

Steven Thompson and Kris Fade established Analemma in 2010 to be able to make wines from the historic Dragonfly Vineyard planted in the early 1960s by Steve Henderson.  His advisor was Walter Clore, who was declared "Father of Washington Wine" by the state legislature for his contributions to the wine industry.  The vineyard was renamed Attavus, but the grapes are still Gewurzraminer and the Mariafeld clone of Pinot Noir.  The 2013 Pinot Noir from Attavus Vineyard is lean and delicate with savory berry flavors, zesty acidity and dusty tannins.

I love Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, and when I tasted Memaloose, Columbia Gorge, Idiot’s Grace Vineyard, Estate Cabernet Franc 2013, I knew that Brian McCormick does too.  The leafy, herbal aromas give way to lean black currant fruit, focused and pure, balanced with zesty acidity and fine tannins.  McCormick and his father, Bob, make wines to go with food, minimizing oak and alcohol.  Their Idiot’s Grace Vineyard in Mosier, OR, is certified organic.

Heading further east to a drier, warmer area near the town of The Dalles, OR, is a Zinfandel vineyard called Volcano Ridge planted by Dr. Alan Busacca’s for his Heart Catcher Wines.  Busacca is a retired Washington State University professor of geology and soil science.  He partnered with Lonnie White, a veteran grape grower who revived an abandoned Zinfandel vineyard now 120 years old.  In 2008, they created Volcano Ridge Vineyard using cuttings from the old Zin vineyard.  The 2012 vintage shows Zin’s restrained, but playful side with juicy dark berry fruit in balance with savory acidity and smooth as velvet tannins.

The Columbia Gorge AVA is made up of small wineries:  Over 95 percent have an annual production of  less than 5,000 cases.  Most are family owned and operated.  Many vineyards are farmed organically, some biodynamically.  I didn’t see a lot of new barrels.  Instead I saw the effort to let the fruit shine.

The folks in the Columbia Gorge like to say it’s a world of wine in 40 miles.  I say it’s a world of delicious and exciting wines in one of the most dramatically beautiful places on the planet.