The Columbia River Gorge is perhaps one of the most dynamic wine growing areas in all the world. Certainly hard to beat in terms of dramatic landscape. The Columbia River Gorge AVA was established in 2004, it's slogan "a world of wines in 40 miles" hints at the kind of variety that this sort of dynamism allows for. From Albarino, to Pinot Noir, to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, the Gorge has a little bit of everything.
The Gorge, is a study in contrasts, sort of. It's in Washington and Oregon. It's in the temperate rain forest on it's western edge, and the dry grasslands that transition to desert at it's eastern edge. While many wine growing regions might point to topographical anomalies that might make for unique elements within the AVA, that might often contribute to a specific character or terroir showing up in a particular vineyard, the Gorge is made up of these kinds of anomalies. What's consistent about the Gorge is really it's diversity. Moving from west to east within the Gorge you lose an inch of rain each mile you travel along the Gorge, 40 inches on one end to 10 on the other. And as you travel east the growing degree days shoot up with all that increased sunshine.
What this means for a fan of Washington, and Oregon wine is that you can drink a variety of varieties, styles and site expressions without ever leaving the Gorge AVA. The Gorge is quickly developing a reputation for it's unique climate and some particular vineyards that deliver complex wines with great acid and elegance are becoming some of the most sought after in the state. In short, the Gorge makes for some really pretty wines. We'll take a look at a few of those well established sites as well as some new ones.
Celilo might be the most revered vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA. It's reputation is for fruit that does well in wines of restraint, minerality, elegance and wonderfully high acids. Pinot Noirs from Syncline have raised the vineyard's profile as a worthy vineyard designate site, but some Washington wineries like Woodward Canyon for example have been using the higher acid fruit from Celilo to blend into their Chardonnay for nearly 20 years.
Celilo Vineyard was planted in 1972 making it an old site by Washington standards. Celilo sits on Underwood Mountain an extinct volcano with deep, loamy soils that show up in the outstanding minerality the site is known for. Celilo is not only in a cool zone, it's elevation adds to it's higher acid fruits as the 75 acre vineyard ranges between 800 and 1200 feet of elevation. Celilo has had the same vineyard manager since 1976, so there's a consistency of quality that comes with that long earned experience and know how.
2011 Tranche Cellars Chardonnay, Celilo Vineyard As the evolution of Washington Chardonnay has progressed, towards more elegance and minerality, less butter, Tranche Cellars has been making one of the finest bottlings I've had year to year. The use of concrete egg fermenters, neutral French oak and battonage gives us a Washington Chardonnay that nods to the Old World. Aromatics of peach skin, wet stone, and a flavor profile of ripe peach and honey really turn on the texture and structure of this Chardonnay. The mouthfeel is balanced with great acid but ample depth and texture from the lees and time in neutral oak and concrete. $45
White Salmon Vineyard
Also on Underwood Mountain White Salmon Vineyard is at a lower elevation(550 feet) planted on a rocky bench of Underwood this vineyards sees perhaps a greater variety in soil types than it's nearby and more famous neighbor. Formed by volcanic slides so the vineyard see pronounced soil diversity. The Chardonnay is planted among the vineyards higher clay content soils.
2012 Foundry Vineyards Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge This wine is super. Super. From Walla Walla's Foundry Vineyards comes a Chardonnay that you absolutely have to try. Production is small, in the neighborhood of 100 cases but well worth seeking out. Another unique element, the Chardonnay is co-fermented with Maria Gomes. That's not a person, that's an obscure, by my take anyways, Portuguese grape. And while perhaps nobody solves a problem like Maria, nobody co-ferments with Chardonnay as well either. Aromatics of honeysuckle, apricot and stone, the wine is a study in balance. There's a brightness to the fruit profile with flavors of just ripe apricot and peach, complimented by a roundness, lemon creme and notes of hazelnut. $27
I know that the Hi-Valley Vineyard is at about 1,000 feet of elevation in the Dalles, Oregon, and that it was planted to about 15 acres of Syrah and Merlot. The vineyard is managed by Lonnie Wright, long-time Gorge guru and the vines are about 15 or so years old. Beyond that, I dunno, I can't find much information on the place, but if the wines are reliably like this one; I'm interesting in learning more.
2010 Jacob Williams Syrah, Hi-Valley Vineyard I'm a huge fan of the potential for cool climate Syrah and I think the Gorge sets up very well, as does the Willamette Valley frankly. In this Jacob Williams Syrah you have a perfect marriage of a cool vintage with a cool site. This isn't your mother's NW Syrah, in the style that perhaps you're used to seeing out of Washington. This wine is austere, angular Old World and has rip roaring acidity. I really dig it. The wine is aromatically effusive, currants, early season brambleberries and earth. The wine opens up over two days with red berries, stone, earth and lots and lots of fresh mint and eucalyptus. Should only be better over the next two years. I've gotta be honest I hadn't heard of Jacob Williams prior to having tried this Syrah but I will be looking out for their wines in the future. $28
Phelps Creek Vineyard
Outside of the Willamette Valley, Phelps Creek Vineyards is producing incredible Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in their vineyard perched above Hood River Oregon. Alexandrine Roy of Burgundy has taken over the reigns of wine direction at Phelps Creek and finds the specifics of the Gorge providing an element that you don't find in the Willamette Valley when it comes to these Burgundian varieties. Alexandrine decidedly notes a different kind of “perfect” acidity in the Gorge, which has higher altitudes and longer maturation periods than the Willamette Valley experiences. The climate in the Gorge, specifically the wind off of the Columbia River, cools and controls the sugar levels in the grapes grown there.
While Alexandrine's finger prints aren't on this Chardonnay (her first vintage directing all of the wine production is 2012) the wine has a sort of Burgundian sense to it. Ample aromatics, with beeswax, coriander and honey. A nicely textured wine owed to the neutral French oak the fruit retains a great acidity though to set a good balance. The palate shows lemon creme, almond and chamomile. $30
Three Sleeps Vineyard
In Mosier, Oregon between The Dalles and Hood River on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge. The Three Sleeps Vineyard is a 15 acre parcel, only 8 of which are planted and it's the estate vineyard for McMinnville winery, Dominio IV. The vineyard was planted in 2001 and is both organic and biodynamically farmed on sandy loam soils. Patrick Reuter is co-owner (along with his wife Leigh, the vineyard manager) and winemaker at Dominio IV. They've planted four different clones of Tempranillo in the site and sees a real future for this varietal in the Northwest. " Tempranillo is certainly worthy of the “signature wine” banner for the northwest, yet still needs to be articulated to a further degree. We need to understand the how to express the grape with distinction given the macro and meso climate or terroir it is grown in."
Three Sleeps Tempranillo Vertical, 2008, 2009, 2010
The Dominio IV label is fairly esoteric and a bit hard to wrap your brain around in terms of the various names, and many multiple bottlings of single varietal wines. However, doing a little sleuthing is worth the effort. They're serious about their varietal bottlings, and may be the biggest "Tempranillo Geeks" in the Northwest. Dominio IV also has some fantastically well priced blends. Tempranillo has shown itself to be at home in Southern Oregon in a number of really nice wines, and we've even seen a few stand outs from Washington. The Dominio IV Tempranillos from Three Sleeps Vineyard however may make a case for the Gorge as ground zero for this Spanish grape here in the Northwest. (These wines were sent as samples and I believe they retail in $35 neighborhood, in which case, BUY THEM!)
2008 Dominio IV Tempranillo, Three Sleeps Vineyard, The Arrow & The Berry
Aromatics of licorice, black tea and turned earth. The wine is aromatically showy but demonstrates refinement on the palate. Ripe flavors of raisin, black plum and pomegranate, This wine balances ripe ample fruit with great tannin and acidity. Finish lingers a long while. (This wine was released in 2011 by the way, showing a real faith in the importance age-ability of Tempranillo from the Gorge.)
2009 Dominio IV Tempranillo, Three Sleeps Vineyard, Midnight Skies
Dusty cherry aromatics, along with clove and cocoa powder. The palate emphasizes dark fruit, black plums, blackberry and anise. Tannins are grippy, dusty and integrate wonderfully with a fresh acidity.
2010 Dominio IV Tempranillo, Three Sleeps Vineyard, Of The Earth
Aptly named, this Tempranillo shows a cooler climate and a real sense of minerality. The most effusively fragant of the three wines, with dried violet, lots of crushed rock and freshly turned earth. Lots of earth. More cloves and plums on the palate but a sort of meatiness and a real savory character to this Tempranillo. It's wonderfully elegant and way age-worthy. My favorite of the trio.