One of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen in the U.S. is the Columbia River Gorge. Flowing south through Washington and then west, forming much of the border between Washington and Oregon, the Columbia River bends north at Portland on its way to empty into the Pacific. It travels a deep canyon through the Cascade Mountains, cleaved by ancient lava flows, ice, massive floods, and landslides. These ancient geologic events have created a surreal beauty. The cliffs flanking the river tower black and green, and wind and clouds rush throughout. Mist, scraggly pines, and ubiquitous waterfalls mark the area, but what is most fascinating about the canyon is how dramatically the scenery changes as one follows its path east from Portland. The water, rocks, and pines give way to woodsy green hills; these roll into desert.
Affectionately shortened to “the Gorge” by locals, this visually arresting place encompasses one of the Pacific Northwest’s youngest wine appellations, founded in 2004. This zone renders wines very unlike, say, the cowboy Cabernet Sauvignons of eastern Washington or the plush, forestlike Pinot Noirs of the Willamette Valley to the south. The Gorge as an appellation, though, is perhaps too young to describe definitively, as current styles of winemaking vary widely, as do microclimates and grape varieties.
Indeed, the most complicating factor, when asking what really makes a Gorge wine, is the remarkable change in climate from west to east across the AVA, a distance of about 20 miles or so. When I visited the area this spring, winemakers often repeated that for every mile one travels east, there is one inch less rain per year. In that beautiful temperate rain forest on the western end of the Gorge, the rainfall averages around 75 to 100 inches annually, whereas in the desertlike slopes to the east, the average is only 10 to 15. Moreover, the elevation of the area ranges from sea level, where the river itself lies, to 1,800 feet, the sky-high position of some of the appellation’s most striking vineyards. This diversity of microclimates means there is a wide array of grape varieties that have historically been planted in the Gorge, to say nothing of those planted more recently. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer are well represented, but so are Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Syrah, with more to come.
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With the exception perhaps of the town of Hood River, the Gorge is a quiet, agriculturally driven area, with plenty of family farms and wineries, many of the latter established in the ’80s. But in the last decade or so, new producers have emerged, sparking exploration. There are a few reasons for this new growth. Already extant in the Gorge are very high quality, established vineyard sites from which to purchase fruit. And there are a few small advantages to being in a viticultural region that’s in its infancy: for one thing, vineyard land tends to be less expensive where there isn’t as much notoriety. Two (and perhaps most important), there are no standards yet, which means winemakers can operate as they see fit, without much fear of criticism from the neighbors.
The new producer who may best exemplify the freedom to try new things in a new AVA is Nate Ready, a Master Sommelier turned winemaker. On his land, the Hiyu Wine Farm in Hood River, the vines, garden, animals, and cooking are all managed via principles of permaculture and biodynamics. Ready himself has bottomless energy for inspiration from every wine region the world over. Ninety-day macerations of Nebbiolo in Barolo winemaking? He made a fearsome Syrah that way. Red and white grapes cofermented, as if an Alsatian field blend? Hiyu has Arco Iris, a ruddy Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris mash-up. Aromatic whites on the skins à la Friuli? Check out his skin-contact Gewürztraminer, pretty as peach fuzz. The wines are in their early stages, and a few of the wines Ready makes under the Smockshop Band label are from eastern vineyards that run very warm, so some of these early cuvées feel hot and rustic. Still, all the wines so far are immediately expressive of their different microclimates, whether at the farm or from different vineyards within the Gorge. As newly grafted vines on the farm vineyards come online, we’ll see fascinating blends derived from global varieties like Assyrtiko, Schioppettino, and Furmint.
In a possibly less avant-garde manner than Ready, but with abundant curiosity, Steven Thompson and Kris Fade have also been working on the question of the Gorge hallmark on their property in Mosier, Oregon. Thompson has been making wines with purchased fruit under the couple’s Analemma label for the last six years, while working to establish their estate vineyards and winery in the Mosier hills. There, inspired by the continental-maritime influences in Galicia, Spain, Thompson and Fade planted the first Mencia in the U.S. However, they’ve also planted Trousseau, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a seemingly magic Syrah—a showstopper I got to taste from the barrel; it was startlingly reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie.
The 2014 and 2015 vintages were some of the hottest years recorded in Oregon, and despite the heat, even in those years the Analemma wines are elegant and fresh. This is especially the case with the wines Thompson made from the old-vine Atavus vineyard. The 1,800-foot elevation and alpine climate of Atavus resulted in fresh, clear Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer, both with a sense of weightlessness. But it isn’t just the excellent Atavus vineyard, or the dry-farmed, also high quality, Oak Ridge site. It’s Thompson’s talent as a farmer and winemaker: The wines are expressive, energetic, and graceful, testifying to his sensitivity in winemaking. Aged on the lees in bottle for three to four years, Analemma’s Blanc de Noir, a true Champagne-method wine, is currently one of the best American sparkling wines made, I think—and easily of higher quality than plenty of wines from Champagne. The Pinot Noir rosé and Chardonnay are also gorgeous.
But Hiyu and Analemma are only two of the exciting newcomers to the Gorge. There are several other producers relatively new to the area that are definitely worth seeking out. Memaloose, a winery helmed by Brian McCormick not far from Analemma, makes stellar Cabernet Franc, the most beautiful I’ve tasted from the region.
Specific vineyards in the Gorge are beginning to make names for themselves, too. The Underwood Vineyard, a dry-farmed site at 1,200 feet has proved a great fruit source for winemakers seeking to create high-acid, mineral wines. Michael Savage of Savage Grace makes a classy Grüner Veltliner from this vineyard. The talented Joe Swick of Swick Wines, based in Portland, made a Pinot Noir from Underwood, Les Sous-Bois, that is unbelievably delicious, great proof that precise natural wine is possible in the area.
There’s a lot of wine to love coming from the Gorge right now. Yes, currently the styles vary widely, but the rising stars and new winemakers emerging in the area or sourcing from the high-quality vineyards are a sure sign this appellation’s trajectory is upward. It’s especially exciting to see the diversity of the Gorge AVA result in experimentation and consequential early successes—and to know this region of arresting beauty holds such powerful potential for wine.
Amanda Smeltz works as a sommelier in New York City, with several years as the wine director of Roberta’s Pizza and Blanca in Brooklyn and a year’s stint as the head sommelier for two Daniel Boulud restaurants. She is also the author of the poetry collection “Imperial Bender.”