The Range of Grapes Has Been Growing Rapidly
By Lisa Shara Hall
The Pacific Northwest should be viewed as a relatively young growing region, with vinifera first planted only in the 1960s. Early pioneers in Oregon and Washington chose varieties that either pleased them personally or were recommended for the particular growing regions by universities and agricultural field stations.
Oregon and Washington both started with classic French varieties, as France was the "motherland" of classic wine. In the early days, experimentation with new varieties was not common. Oregon, the cooler region, primarily established Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc, most typical of the cooler French regions of Burgundy and Alsace.
East of the Cascades in Washington, where all but 70 acres of grapes are found, was a hot dry desert before irrigation in the 1930s brought the water that turned the region into a serious farming community. The grapes most planted in Washington also reference France, but generally the warmer regions (although there are a few cooler weather vineyards in Washington, too): Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, and Viognier.
But as a winegrowing region evolves--especially one not clad in history, tradition, and complex appellation laws--winemakers feel more secure, and increasingly are asking the question, what else could grow well here?
Italian varieties have become an answer.
What was First
Former Cascade Cliffs owner and winemaker Ken Adcock (now a Columbia Gorge commissioner) planted Nebbiolo in 1987 and Barbera in 1991-92 in his vineyards on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. Cascade Cliff's current owner/ winemaker Bob Lorkowski said "Ken read a book on Italy and got interested in the varieties. Our site has perfect elevation at 260 feet with due South/ South-East exposure." Cascade Cliffs has seen very good success with the Barbera in particular, making it their flagship wine. Current production is only 200 cases, but Lorkowski planted "a lot more" and expects to reach a production of 1,000 cases per year soon. Cascade Cliffs makes a regular bottling and is planning a reserve cuvée as well.
Growing the Barbera takes patience. Barbera is the first to bud and the last to harvest for Lorkowski. The vines are vigorous growers, and he keeps the yield at two and a half tons/acre. But it can get tough. He said, "If you get a spring frost or fall rain, you're screwed." So far so good for Cascade Cliffs. Both the Barbera and Nebbiolo are released on Valentine's Day and then sell out quickly; the Barbera in particular shows ripe clean varietal character, making Cascade Cliff's Barbera a winner.
The Italians Take the Lead
Not surprisingly, the winemakers who claim an Italian heritage are the most passionate about Italian varieties. In Oregon, the Ponzi family has pioneered Italian varieties since 1990. Arneis is their pride and joy, but the public has been slow to learn about the variety. So why produce it?