One of the most exciting but least understood Northwest wine regions is the Columbia Gorge.
Officially, the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area is a grape-growing region that crosses both sides of the Columbia River, surrounding the city of Hood River, Ore., and such towns as White Salmon and Bingen, Wash.
But in reality, the region known as “the Gorge” extends from Troutdale, Ore., in the west to Goldendale, Wash., in the east.
It is a fascinating area because the western part of the region is a cool, rainy climate, making it good for growing pinot noir, gewürztraminer, riesling and chardonnay. As you travel east, the Cascade Mountains block the rain and the area dries out. This is ideal for growing warm-climate grapes such as zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.
Further confusing matters is that many wineries in the region bring in grapes from other areas of the Pacific Northwest. As a result, within about a 60-mile stretch of highway, we enjoy a world of wine tasting.
Today, more than 30 wineries and tasting rooms call the Columbia Gorge home, and that is helping to create a dynamic region for wine lovers. Restaurants and hotels are building up, particularly in Hood River. But amenities are not limited to the Oregon side of the Columbia. The grand Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash., is an amazing property with superb dining, as well as golf, hiking trails, a spa and zip line tours.
We recently conducted the inaugural Columbia Gorge Wine Competition at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River. The top wine of the judging was a pinot noir from Phelps Creek Vineyards, while the best white wine was a riesling from Mt. Hood Winery — both in Hood River.
Here were the six gold medal winners:
Phelps Creek Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge, $34: Most pinot noirs from Oregon come from the Willamette Valley. This, however, uses estate grapes near Hood River, and it has a style all its own. Pretty aromas of cranberry, raspberry and lavender give way to suave flavors of red cherry, pomegranate and ripe raspberry. Its bright acidity and refined tannins make this a smooth and memorable wine. (13.5% alc.)
Mt. Hood Winery 2013 Riesling, Columbia Gorge, $17: This Hood River, Ore., winery excels with Riesling, so this example is no fluke. Bright aromas of citrus, white flower and apple lead to round flavors of apple, pear, peach and jicama. A kiss of sweetness makes this a complete wine. (11.2% alc.)
Cathedral Ridge Winery 2013 Bolton Vineyard Reserve Barbera, Columbia Valley, $48: Bold, rich, plush flavors of blueberry, huckleberry and dark chocolate are the hallmarks of this Italian variety rarely found in our region, and this does not disappoint. It’s a big wine with elegant structure, purity of fruit and a lengthy finish. (14.3% alc.)
Maryhill Winery 2011 Marvell GSM Hattrup Farms, Rattlesnake Hills, $32: Using grapes from the Yakima Valley, Maryhill has crafted this blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre into a stunning wine with aromas of Christmas spices, strawberry and cherry, followed by round, plush, delicious flavors of ripe raspberry and red plum. (14.5% alc.)
Phelps Creek Vineyards 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Gorge, $26: This bright and delicious white wine is made in a New Zealand style with wildly luscious aromas and flavors of sweet herb, gooseberry and a bite of green apple. (12.9% alc.)
Maryhill Winery 2011 Hattrup Farms Mourvèdre, Rattlesnake Hills, $40: Mourvèdre is a big, bold red, and this is as good as they come in the Northwest. Aromas of sweet oak, dried sage and strawberry give way to flavors of red currant, fresh strawberry and rhubarb, all backed with sweet tannins. (13.1% alc.)