Washington Wine Spotlight: Columbia Gorge AVA

When it comes to buzzworthy Washington wine regions, a little bit of everything—and magic—is happening on a tiny patch in southern Washington
Brian McCormick, winemaker at Memaloose winery in Lyle, Washington, is drawn to the Gorge’s microclimates and singular winemaking opportunities

Draw a triangle around the Columbia Gorge AVA, Washington’s most beautiful winegrowing region. From the west comes the maritime influence of the Pacific Ocean. From the east, dry air from the arid continental Columbia River basin. From the north, the cooling effects of the alpine Cascade crest. At the nexus (somewhere near Hood River, Oregon), these forces collide, with predictably wild climatic results. Here, in the transition zone between east and west, a rogues’ gallery of farmers and winemakers are producing some of the Northwest’s most exciting wines.

The Gorge is best known as Washington’s most successful coolest-climate winemaking region, perfect for brightly acidic white wines and light-bodied, ethereal reds. But the region stubbornly resists easy characterization. Brian McCormick, the farmer/winemaker behind Memaloose, a winery located in tiny Lyle, Washington, arrived in the Gorge in 2001 “on the run out of Sonoma County,” he says. He was attracted to the Gorge precisely because its varied microclimates and soils make it a difficult region to pin down. “There is a distinct phase change that occurs in the Gorge, as between a liquid and a solid,” notes McCormick. “In the transition, you can witness unexpected behavior.”

McCormick is not the only wanderer attracted to the Gorge. Because of the dynamic geography of the place, with 2,000-foot elevation swings and little in the way of flatlands, vineyard holdings have remained tiny, and a community of small-vineyard owners and small wineries has emerged, with a shared love of pushing the winemaking envelope. James Mantone, whose Syncline (also in Lyle) is the best known of the Gorge wineries, calls out the area’s “tortured topography,” which offers “potential for creating wines of singular terroir; wines from small intimate vineyards that will never be big enough to sell to 30 clients.” McCormick, too, champions the intimacy of the Gorge, noting that the wineries are “small-scale, varied and personality-driven, with an unmistakable, restless propensity for experimentation.” This region is the science lab of Washington wine.

Currently, a high proportion of visitors to the Gorge come from Portland, only an hour’s drive away, but the region seems perfectly poised to attract more Seattleites. About a four-hour drive from Seattle, it is perfect long-weekend territory, and the town of Hood River offers charming restaurants and accommodations. The wineries are delightful to visit and often too small to hire tasting-room staff. “Many of us are owner/operators who you’ll meet in the tasting room,” says Steven Thompson, whose Analemma Wines is based across the Columbia in Mosier, Oregon.

Thompson relocated to the Gorge after stints in Walla Walla and New Zealand, in part because of the area’s “unparalleled aesthetic and geographical beauty.” It’s a viticultural area that looks more like the Mosel region in Germany, with its scenic hillsides descending towards a meandering river, than it does like eastern Washington’s arid desert. “There are thoughtful farmers here,” adds Thompson, “farming some of the Northwest’s oldest sites, and creating some of the most compelling cool-climate wines in the Northwest.”

From left: 2014 Syncline Estate Syrah, 2013 Memaloose Estate Cabernet Franc Idiot’s Grace Vineyard, 2015 Domaine Pouillon Blanc du Moulin, 2015 Cor Cellars Alba Cor Celilo Vineyard, 2014 Analemma Pinot Noir Oak Ridge Vineyard

Paul’s Picks from the Columbia Gorge

2015 Cor Cellars Alba Cor Celilo Vineyard ($20)
For this just off-dry white, Luke Bradford of Lyle-based Cor Cellars sources his Gewürztraminer (56 percent of the blend) and Pinot Gris (44 percent) entirely from Celilo Vineyard, the acclaimed Gorge site on the southern flank of the extinct volcano Underwood Mountain. He ferments the grapes in a concrete tank, and the result is a beauty, with Gewürztraminer taking the lead role aromatically—tropical fruits like lychee and mango complemented by wildflowers galore—and Pinot Gris contributing body and green-apple acidity. PAIRS WITH: A sweet and spicy paneer korma.

2013 Memaloose Estate Cabernet Franc Idiot’s Grace Vineyard ($36)
Brian McCormick makes a series of exceptional wines under his Memaloose label, and my current favorite red is Cabernet Franc from his Idiot’s Grace Vineyard. This is a dead ringer for Cab Franc from another cool-climate region: the Loire Valley in France. It possesses the green notes that Franc acolytes live for—spring cress and sweet pea and poblano pepper—as well as a deep core of juicy berry fruit. The listed alcohol (12.8 percent) underscores how cool the climate of the Gorge really is. PAIRS WITH: The first fresh salmon of the season, alongside a sweet pea purée.

2014 Analemma Pinot Noir Oak Ridge Vineyard ($32)
Steven Thompson helps farm Oak Ridge Vineyard, a high-elevation site in the foothills of Mount Adams, planted way back in 1984. Pinot Noir from Washington is still something of a rare breed, but this light-bodied red wine is one of a handful of lovely examples coming out of the Gorge AVA. It combines its deep black cherry fruit with an insistent, attractive sense of earthiness. There is real crushed-rock minerality here, and old-vine depth and intensity. PAIRS WITH: Coq au vin, with double the amount of mushrooms your recipe calls for, and a few extra sprigs of fresh thyme, too.

2015 Domaine Pouillon Blanc du Moulin ($45)
Alexis and Juliet Pouillon of Lyle-based Domaine Pouillon craft this lovely, dry Rhône white from their biodynamic estate vineyard (Reed’s Lane). It is a blend of 67 percent Roussanne, 21 percent Marsanne, and 12 percent Viognier, and it offers a compelling nose combining stone fruits (peach, nectarine), melon and an attractive raw-almond nuttiness. The palate—rich, velvety, intense—could almost be mistaken for a red wine. PAIRS WITH: A crab salad, studded with celery and Meyer lemon peel.

2014 Syncline Estate Syrah ($60)
James and Poppie Mantone have an estate vineyard, called Steep Creek Ranch, right at their winery in Lyle, and that vineyard is the source for this thrilling Syrah. This part of the Gorge is climatically marginal for ripening Syrah, and the resultant low yields make this a very expensive wine to produce. But the quality is outrageous, and the wine possesses a soul that would not be a wit out of place in the northern Rhône, generally considered the world’s finest region for Syrah. There’s huckleberry and plum sauce, seaweed and bacon fat and graphite. The nose has that wildness that lovers of Syrahs find so deeply entrancing, so stubbornly rare. And then the palate is lithe, energetic and savory as can be. PAIRS WITH: A charcuterie plate, filled with as many funky cured meats and sausages as you can score.

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