Take a Trip to Italy via Northwest Wines

by Cole Danehower / Photo ©  Yakima Valley Wine Alliance

When the early modern wine pioneers of the Pacific Northwest first planted vinifera grapes, they looked to France as their model. Warm-climate grapes from Bordeaux and Rhône found a compatible home in eastern Washington, while cool-climate grapes from Burgundy and Alsace equally thrived in Oregon.

But as the Northwest matures as a wine region, winegrowers are increasingly looking to other parts of Europe for inspiration—and, as a result, wine lovers are experiencing some exciting and different tastes.

Italy, in particular, has proven fertile inspiration for the emergence of “new” grape varieties in the Northwest. And why not? Italy—home to approximately 2,000 indigenous wine grape varieties—has one of the most wine-rich cultures in the world. One would think some of those grapes would prosper in the American Northwest. And, indeed, they do!

Some of the first Italian varieties in the Northwest were planted at the Yakima Valley’s Red Willow Vineyard from 1984 to 1994. Sangiovese, the famed grape from Tuscany; nebbiolo, the elegantly refined grape of Piemonte; barbera, one of Italy’s most popular and versatile varieties; and dolcetto, a quaffable, lighter-style red—all these famous Italian grapes got their Northwest start at Red Willow.

Today, fortunately for wine consumers, small blocks of native Italian grapes are being planted all over the region as winegrowers and winemakers expand their varietal portfolios.

For those of us accustomed to the expected cabernet character and pinot personality of our Northwest wines, the juicy berry quality of a good barbera, or the savory cherry nature of a fine sangiovese make a refreshing change. And if you’re among the anything-but-Chardonnay crowd, you’ll find a spicy arneis or racy vermentino to be revelations.

Have I tempted you to try the Northwest’s latest crop of Italian-inspired wines? Good! Check out my recommendations for 10 of our region’s best Italian-inspired wines for you to seek out. But remember, these wines are all made in tiny quantities, so they can be difficult to find—though well worth searching for:

  • Airfield Estates, 2012 Dolcetto ($28): New-World style dolcetto that emphasizes ripe cherry with accents of mocha and toasty oak.
  • Apolloni Vineyards, 2010 Conti di Val Seriana, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Red Mountain ($38): Classically-styled sangiovese with structure and spice surrounding the rich, dark cherry fruit.
  • Brian Carter Cellars, 2009 Tuttorosso, Yakima Valley ($34): Succulent Tuscan-style blend—68% sangiovese, 22% cabernet sauvignon and 10% syrah—with blackberry and dried-rose-petal.
  • Cana’s Feast, 2010 Sangiovese Grosso, Columbia Valley ($45): A sophisticated sangiovese sporting vibrant cherry flavors complemented by the complexity of baking spices and dried herbs.
  • Lady Hill Winery, 2013 Barbera, Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley ($25): A jaunty and juicy, fruit-filled wine made from the Northwest’s oldest barbera vines.
  • Marchesi Vineyards, 2012 Nebbiolo, Buja Nen, Columbia Valley ($40): Pretty aromas and a burly/spicy quality to the concentrated dark fruitiness; big, yet elegant at the same time.
  • Ponzi Vineyards, 2013 Arneis, Willamette Valley ($30): A white wine with loads of warming pear and spice flavors made bright by the contrasting fresh citrusy acid; an unusual Italian variety for the Northwest.
  • Remy Wines, 2011 Lagrein, Illahe Vineyard, Willamette Valley ($48): This rare and little-planted grape (even in Italy) has black and red fruits surrounded by spice and herb notes.
  • Troon Vineyard, 2013 Vermentino, Foundation ’72, Applegate Valley ($18): One of the few vermentino wines made in the U.S., this white variety offers tasty lemon-like flavors backed by minerality, citrus peel and white peach.
  • Woodward Canyon, 2012 Barbera, Estate, Walla Walla Valley ($29): Dense and concentrated; offers luxuriant dark fruit character backed by plush tannins and fresh acidity.