by Cole Danehower | Photo © Abacela
With more than 4,000 different vinifera grape varieties known, there should be a wine for every palate, from Arneis to Zweigelt. So, how come Northwest wine lovers keep drinking the same seven wines: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris?
We like what we like. But what if we’re missing something even better?
The Pacific Northwest is a diverse wine region capable of growing many different kinds of wine grapes. Increasingly, Northwest vintners are experimenting with “new” grapes, or at least grapes that previously haven’t been widely planted here. It takes a little effort to seek out these vinous outliers, but the adventurous wine lover will discover an expanding palette of new wine varieties to tempt their personal wine palates.
Take Tempranillo, for instance. This is the great red grape of the Rioja region of Spain, and it is one of the fastest growing grape varieties in our region—but still made in small amounts. Suddenly, people are loving its luscious earthy red fruit flavors. Yet Tempranillo was first planted in the region as recently as the mid 1990s when Earl and Hilda Jones at Abacela (abacela.com) in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley AVA introduced it to the Northwest. It’s only been since their 1997 vintage that consumers have been able to buy Tempranillo from the Northwest—and now it is grown from the Okanagan Valley to the Rogue Valley.
Even the popular Viognier grape is new to many. This luscious white variety has gained in respect because many people are seeking white wine alternative to the omnipresent Chardonnay. Washington’s McCrea Cellars (mccreacellars.com) was the Northwest pioneer with this grape, originally from the Rhône region of France, though it is now more widely planted. Idaho’s Cinder Wines (cinderwines.com) is one of a new generation of wineries specializing in Viognier (pronounced “vee-own-yeah”), while Quady North (quadynorth.com) is a Southern Oregon example of a craft Viognier producer.
There are plenty of other grapes that haven’t achieved the same market critical mass that Tempranillo and Viognier have—at least not yet. Dolcetto is one such variety. An Italian red grape that delivers delicious cherry fruitiness along with tasty touches of licorice, Dolcetto has a small foothold in the Northwest. In Washington look for Dolcetto wines from Cascade Cliffs (cascadecliffs.com) and Woodward Canyon, while Oregon’s Erath (erath.com) and Ponzi (ponziwines.com) wineries sometimes make boutique bottlings of the grape.
Zinfandel is hardly a new wine grape, but in the Northwest it is rather rare. While grown extensively throughout California, Zinfandel hasn’t caught on widely up here. And yet it can make delicious Northwest wines. With its wild, fruity, and sometimes brambly character, it is a delicious variant for those used to our area’s so-called “big reds.” Oregon’s Angel Vine (angelvine.net) winery is one of the region’s two Zinfandel specialists (though the fruit comes from Washington), offering a number of different releases. Also look for top Zinfandel (and its ancient Italian ancestor, Primitivo) from Washington’s Thurston Wolfe (thurstonwolfe.com) winery.
There’s a tiny amount of Grüner Veltliner in the region, but there should be more. This Austrian grape has wonderfully aromatic scents, offers tastes of dried herbs and yellow fruits, and delivers a sensuous mouth feel. It was first planted here by Stephen Reustle of Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards (reustlevineyards.com) in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, and his version is pretty much the gold standard. You can also find excellent “grüners” from Viento Wines and Syncline, both in the Columbia Gorge AVA.
These are just a handful of the interesting, out-of-the-mainstream grape varieties that are taking hold in the Northwest. There are plenty more to explore. You could seek the sleek white Vermentino wine from Oregon’s Troon Vineyards (troonvineyard.com), or the steely white Auxorrois from Adelsheim Vineyard (adelsheim.com). You might open a bottle of red Barbera from Lady Hill Winery (ladyhill.net), or the marvelous Mourvèdre red wine from Helioterra (helioterrawines.com). You could try Lemburger from Kiona Vineyards (kionawine.com) or Counoise made by McCrea.
The fun of wine is trying new things. Next time you’re in your local wine shop, buy a Northwest wine from a grape you’ve never heard of. You’ll be glad you did!