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Grape Expectations

Oregon vintners experiment with Italian varieties

So much to worry about — The Big One, global warming, wine growth and change. And if we really want that thrill of fear, we only have to whisper: President Trump. Shivers and trembling, fear and loathing.

We stay up nights, running apocalyptic scenarios through our troubled dreams. But when we wake, wine is still our business — and Oregon’s rapidly growing business, even though it’s still relatively new (since the mid-1960s). As we pointed out last year, by 1970 we had five active wineries; recent figures indicate we now have 400-plus. Recently, too, former Napa Valley residents have published, in a column by Sandra Ericson and at least one letter to the editor, warnings about the price to be paid, by all of us, for supporting the burgeoning wine biz and related tourism. 

For years, though, we here at EW have urged that citizens and planners in or near towns and villages along the wine road — especially Territorial “Highway,” places like Lorane, Veneta, Elmira, Cheshire, Monroe, places where residents value their rural culture — prepare for those impacts and the infrastructure pressures they’ll inevitably bring on roads, water, sewer, new construction.

Prepare for the benefits, too. Oregon’s wines are, for the most part, quite excellent, rivaling the best wines anywhere. And good wines often attract travelers with some sophistication — and disposable income. They’ll want good food, which means more fine-dining restaurants. They’ll want hospitality — nice places to stay, which means more hotels, B&Bs, wahtchagot?

We can look at precedents, not just Napa and Sonoma but France, Italy, Germany and beyond, where hundreds of years’ experiences have resulted in both the widespread development of the wine industry and, simultaneously, preservation of essential features of historic places and a bucolic way of life. It can be done. It should be done, now, not later. Add this to your list of worries and causes for action.

Meanwhile, Mole and I (and others) have been studying the results of Oregon viticulturalists’ ongoing explorations of grape varieties suitable to our state and region. There’s no doubt that we can make superb wines from (mainly) French varietals (especially the pinot family — blanc, gris, noir) in the (erstwhile) cool, moist Willamette Valley. 

But Oregon has many growing regions with diverse climates, soils and elevations which could be hospitable to other varietals. For instance, the Spanish grapes, Tempranillo and Albarino, thrive at Abacela in the Umpqua Valley — and in the Applegate, along with Rhone Valley varietals like Syrah and Grenache. We’ve only begun to experiment in the wonderful Columbia Valley. 

California growers have long experience with Italian varietals, with Washington catching up. Italians have a couple thousand years’ history with grapes and wines, and Italian families, after all, were among the earliest emigrants to the state and brought their grapevines with them, planted, made their wines, were (still are) hugely influential in establishing California’s wine biz.

Oregon growers and vintners are already enjoying some early successes with Italian grapes:

One of the most remarkable: Hugely talented winemaker Anne Hubatch crafted Helioterra 2014 Arneis ($18.50), a dry white typically grown in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The Helioterra version is ripe and round, with aromas/flavors of pears lightly spritzed with lime juice. Mole sez, “Dis is as tasty as summa da best. Howzabout sum halibut?” Yeah, good choice.

Jim Seufert (Seufert Winery) traveled in Piedmont and was charmed when his bread came to the table accompanied by an unlabeled bottle of local red. Seufert’s wife, Michelle Wasner, in an email, noted that Seufert “was intrigued by its versatility of pairings and robust freshness in flavor. He found Dolcetto growing on a small plot in the Umpqua, in (of course) Delfino’s vineyard. It is soon to be released, “a refreshing red [with] mild tannins …  great for warm days.” Watch for it.

Locally, Mark Nicholl (Oregon Wine Lab) was able to find enough good sangiovese (Amaranth Ridge, Umpqua Valley) to make one barrel (about 23 cases) of Wm Rose 2013 Sangiovese ($36). Sangiovese is one of Italy’s great grapes, essential in Chianti and, in its most elevated form, the only grape in Brunello di Montalcino, one of the world’s most sought-after wines (average price around $60). Nicholl’s pride is forgivable in describing his sangiovese as “very Chianti-esque.”

After only 50 years, some Oregon wines, at their best, are now ranked among the top wines of the world. If we can last another century or so, might we learn how to have our wines and still have our distinctively Oregon way of life? Stay tuned.