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God’s Grapes

Oregon growers and Italian varietals

In our lab at Wine Investigations, Mole and I were wilting. Temps outside, even at the 17th floor of the old high-rise, reached 105 degrees; inside wasn’t much cooler, though we keep all the wines comfy and cozy, in dark fridges, at 54 degrees, warming some, cooling others, before testing. 

For months, we’ve been searching for growers in Oregon who are experimenting with Italian varietals — sangiovese, nebbiolo, dolcetto, barbera and others.

See, grapes have been cultivated for wine for many centuries (maybe millennia), and the Italians have been in the wine biz since the Roman Empire. But Oregon’s wine history is only a few decades old, and viticulturalists are still asking questions about which grapes might do best in our (fast-changing) climate — and, of course, our soils, slopes, elevations and other variables. In our cool, moist climate (remember?), pinot noir thrived.

 Lately, many growers have enjoyed huge successes with grape varietals — and their wines — made famous in France’s warm Rhone Valley: whites like viognier and Marsanne-Roussanne; reds like syrah, grenache, malbec and others. A little twist in history shows that the French also know a bit about grapes and can make pretty decent vins. 

In fact, in Wine Enthusiast mag’s online list of Oregon’s Best Wines, the very top, highest-rated, are Rhone varietals wearing the Cayuse label and originating on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley; these wines are expensive and almost impossible to buy at retail. Production is tiny and almost all are sold through their subscription list and wine club.

Turns out, though, that those varietals also thrive in warm places like the Applegate Valley. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, try Cowhorn’s array of organic, biodynamic (organic with fervor) wines …

“Wait, Sleut’,” Mole says, leaning over my shoulder as I peck away at the keyboard, “ya has ta disclose that Josh Kimball sent us samples. Fer once we didn’t buy owah wines.”

He’s right, of course. Yes, we received freebies. Still … “Yeah, Mole, but we’ve always liked Cowhorn wines. They’ve been terrific; are now.”

“Shuah, but tha peeps trust us ’n gotta know we ain’t just rollin’ ovah fer freebies. Nevah have, nevah will.”

“OK, ya got it.”

 But Cowhorn’s Rhonish wines rock. The 2014 Viognier is nearly flawless, floral without being flabby, good acidity, maybe a stiff ticket at $35, same price as the 2014 Marsanne Roussanne, also excellent, both miniscule production. And the 2011 Syrah ($45) is so mouthfilling it defies talk; but it’s still a baby wine, better in a couple years. ’Course we aerate it into a decanter to speed up oxygenation — but it’s still better the second day. Cowhorn 2014 Spiral 36 white blend (viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne) ($28) drinks just fine now but also will improve over months of cellaring. The plain fact is Cowhorn wines are among the state’s best.

“But no Italian grapes?”  Mole asks.

“Nope,” I reply, “but folks in CA and WA are doing lots. We visited Waving Tree in Goldendale, just over the bridge from the Oregon side of the Columbia. Terrance Atkins said he decided to plant Italian varietals ‘before any planting’ because their climate and soils are ‘very like Italy.’ Waving Tree 2010 Sangiovese Reserve Estate ($20) drinks like good Chianti, but the 2009 Nebbiolo ($20) is just superb, rich and flavorful.”

We know others in Oregon are exploring our grapes and soils, trying to find our best. Kinda like looking for God’s own grapes for our home. Mole and I hope they’ll reach out to us here and guide us to their wines. Then we’ll try to guide our readers to greater vino happiness and wider wine horizons.

Finally, special thanks to our pal Larry Malmgren for helping us conduct our researches. Mole really admires Larry, sez, “he gots good buds.” I think he means tastebuds.