Eugene Weekly : Wine : 3.6.08

Alaska Pinot?
Rising temps portend grape migration

Lately, my dear sidekick Mole has been deeply vexed about the future of Oregon wine, especially our cool-climate jewel, pinot noir, as the world warms and the weather weirds: “Sleut’,” he almost sobbed, “we might havta drink cabernet!” Poor, sweet Mole. I tried to comfort him with a story:

Some years ago, Kat and I traveled to the Mosel Valley of Germany, stayed a night in the Dreigiebelhaus in Kröv. Our room was country-cozy under the high-pitched roof, the part that had the three gables, of the traditional-style house. The house itself was perched on a hillside above the meandering Mosel River, surrounded by steep hillsides of degraded shale covered in grapevines from the highest ridges down the slopes almost to the very edge of the river, sweeping like a grape flood up the edges of houses and buildings in the drowsy village.

Still jet-lagged and sleepless, I rose early, minutes before dawn, crept out of the room and stood in the window of the gable, smoking, watching rising light wash the sky. The valley was still and silent, the quiet broken only by a few early birds and a whisper-quiet river barge slipping through bends in the river to reach Bernkastel-Kues.

The sun broke over a ridge behind me, and a single shaft of light struck a broken stone tower on an arête far across the river from my window perch. It was the ruined remains of a Roman watchtower at the northern edge of the Empire. As the light descended the tower and then the hillsides, until it painted the river a silken green, I was swept up in a reverie of ancient war.

It is said that the Roman legions’ march north was limited by two factors: First, the Gothic tribes were particularly vicious fighters; second, and more important, the legions had reached the northern limit of their grapes. Beyond this line, they could not make their wine, so, in effect, why bother? If true, this fact might also help explain why the Romans were so quick to leave what is now England.

Now, of course, wine grapes thrive in the north valleys of the Mosel, the Rhine, Alsace. Some growers are even trying to make a go of grapes in England. The point — the moral of the tale — is that wine will find its clime, at least for a while. Decades from now, this region might be too warm for pinot noir, but we’re already seeing Oregon syrah, zinfandel, merlot, cabernet, tempranillo and other warm-country grapes, now coming mainly from the Rogue Valley, some from the Umpqua and Columbia valleys. The pinots of Vancouver Island might not be so great right now, could be yummy in 2050, which, on wine’s clock, is hardly a tick. Cold comfort? Best I’ve got.

But while we’re on warm-country wines and cool-country crab season, try to find Spangler 2006 Viognier ($16). A denizen of the warm parts of southern France, the grape has found a friend in Pat Spangler of Winston. This dry white shows pale, almost white in color, but the fruit is brilliant and crisp, with notes of white flowers, pears and peaches, all finely balanced with acidity to make a pretty match with fresh crab or white fish.

Spangler also bottles a wicked big red: Spangler 2006 Cabernet Franc may take a bite out of your wallet ($40), but it’s still good value. The fruit is sourced from Don and Traute Moore’s Rogue Valley vineyard, and they’re coming in fully ripe and heavy with juice; the wine is deep and dark, the flavors a complex panoply of blackberry, black currant, plums, leather, pepper, framed by medium tannins, a carnivore’s delight.

Global weirding has already caused grape growers in Spain to alter their pruning practices to get more shade for their clusters; some growers are looking to move vineyards higher into the hills, out of the heat-sumps of the valleys. Meanwhile, they’re making some of the best wines in their history. Tim at Midtown has on sale a few remaining bottles of Albarino de Fefinanes 2004 ($21) from the Rias Baixas region (best for this grape): crisp, clean white yields flavors like peach, honeysuckle, apple, with distinct mineral notes, lovely with seafood, cheesy pastas.

Meanwhile, back at our own ranch, we’re still making ever better pinot noir, with new labels from boutique producers appearing almost daily. Folks at Illahe Vineyards in Dallas (by Monmouth) have been growing grapes for 25 years but have begun to make and bottle their own. Illahe 2006 Pinot Noir ($21) is a soft, lush mouthful of dark cherry fruit and silky texture, suitable for sipping or supping.

Willamette Valley Vineyards keeps coming back. The WVV 2006 Pinot Gris ($15) is one of the best they’ve released: nice pear/apple fruit flavors, good balance, clean finish. The wine should be easy to find and should be found often.

Michael Pollan, in The Botany of Desire, opines that human beings often work for plants, and I think he’s right, certainly when it comes to grapes: We haul the vines to their proper soils, dig them in, tend them, kill their pests, harvest their fruit, generally do a lot of ass-work for their propagation. Happily, they also serve our deepest desires. For that and other reasons, the good Mole should stop fretting, even if it’s tough to imagine our grandchildren slurping fine Alaskan pinot.