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Home | United States - Other | Columbia Gorge - Room with a view

Columbia Gorge - Room with a view

October 9, 2013

Located within the first National Scenic Area of the United States, the Columbia Gorge consists of 80 miles of the canyon carved out by the Columbia River.  The raw beauty of the area prompted the special designation by the USDA's Forrest Service in 1986. The geological events which occurred 12,000 to 20,000 years ago have created the picturesque Columbia Gorge and left an incredibly unique place to grow grapes. And what goes better with a stunning view than a glass of wine?

The Wines of the Columbia Gorge

As the only gap in the mountains that run from British Columbia to California, the Columbia Gorge is the only spot that allows the cool Pacific air to reach east of the Cascades unhindered. The rush of cool air up the Gorge meets the warm, dry air of the eastern plain, which creates a palpable change in the climate as you continue the trek eastward. Some residents say the rule of thumb is a degree per mile. Contained within 15 miles of this confluence is the Columbia Gorge American Viticulture Area (AVA).

The stark contrasts of the east-west ends of the AVA extend beyond temperature change, as the side closest to the Cascades receives around 36 inches of rain per year and the eastern end is sprinkled with less than ten. Added to this is a diversity of soils, which combined with temperature change and rainfall, result in what the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association calls “a world of wine in 40 miles.” It should therefore be no surprise that variety is commonplace. The cooler, wetter western reaches of the AVA are planted with grapes such as Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, and other early ripening varietals. As you travel east up the Gorge, you will encounter more Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, and other grapes that are more well-suited to the heat. On either side of the spectrum, there are two grapes which highlight the uniqueness of the AVA.

Gewürztraminer- Pull out the German phonetic guide for this fragrant white varietal. Also referred to as “Gewurtz” for short, this lovely grape has its origins in the mountainous region of southern Germany and Northern Italy. Although the exact story has a un-German-like lack of precision, Gewürztraminer was the result of complicated genetic mutations and crossings over the centuries. The result is an aromatic grape that is quite particular about its priorities for a vineyard. The cool climate of the eastern portion of Columbia Gorge passes the test and is only one of a few areas in Washington or Oregon that can grow the grape. Due to the naturally high level of sugar in the grape, Gewürztraminer is usually made in an off-dry style which compliments its floral and fruity aromatics. Many people get hints of roses, lychee, passion fruit, and a bit of all spice. The sweetness level combined with the lively aromatics makes Gewurztraminer a great match for spicy Asian cuisine, but also can pair well with local fare such as smoked salmon.

Zinfandel- A grape of many names across the world (e.g. Primitivo in Italy, Crljenak Kastelanski in Croatia) this red varietal has had a long and unique history in the United States. Arriving on the east coast in the 1820s, Zinfandel made its way to California during the gold rush of the 1850s. Pleased with its surroundings, the grape took root within the Californian soil and the culture. Zinfandel became quite popular throughout the area and more and more vines were planted until the 1920s. The atrocity of Prohibition ensured that the population remained stagnant; a trend that did not change until the 1970s. As the red grape made its comeback, its cultivation spread and eventually reached the Columbia Gorge. On the eastern half on the AVA, the climate is suitable for the vigorous Zinfandel as the cool Pacific air provides enough relief for the excessive heat that can be detrimental to the grapes. High sugars result in wines that can hover around 15% alcohol, but with enough tannic structure and acidity, winemakers can make sure the fruit doesn't get upstaged. And it is the abundant fruitiness that can make Zinfandel so attractive. Descriptors of the aromas are blackberry, raspberry, briar fruit, black pepper and even cigar box. Usually medium to full bodied, Zinfandel sometimes is described as “jammy” with its rich fruit characteristics. Food pairings can be plentiful depending on how big and bold the Zinfandel is but generally work well with grilled meats and pasta dishes.

Grape growing in Columbia Gorge

Variety is the rule in this relatively new AVA. Gaining official status in 2004, Columbia Gorge AVA has vineyards planted at sea level, at 2000 feet, and everywhere in between. The first experimentation with grape cultivation in the area took place in the 1970s but it wasn't until the late 80s and early 90s that wines made from Columbia Gorge grapes begun to be noticed. This may be because the AVA's vineyards are producing a dramatic array of grapes on the 191,000 acres. Unlike other winegrowing regions who can hang their hat on a handful of varietals, vintners must choose from a litany of grapes to determine which will thrive within their own microclimate. So, wine drinkers have a bit of a challenge to search the AVA for palate pleasers. But it's not such a bad thing, especially considering the view.

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·  Okanagan Valley - Land of lakes and deserts
·  Willamette Valley
·  Southern Oregon
·  Columbia Valley
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·  Red Mountain
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·  Yakima Valley AVA


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