Oregon brings Italian wines to the table

March 29, 2019 

The Oregon wine industry, solidly built on a foundation of Pinot Noir, is simultaneously rooted in experimentation. And though many regional winegrowers maintain the shared latitude with Burgundy in France validates Pinot Noir as the primary grape, Oregon’s diversity of geography soil, and climate makes it ripe for an Italian renaissance.

The number of growers and winemakers in the Pacific Northwest making Italian heritage varietal wines has grown exponentially, as has the quality of their collective efforts. People like John Paul, owner/winemaker for Cameron Winery, says he’s been experimenting with and growing Nebbiolo for 25 years.

“Nebbiolo is best known from the region of Barolo,” he said, “and though we will seldom produce a vintage reminiscent of that area, our Nebbiolo is a dead ringer for Alto Piemonte (at least when done properly).”

Alfredo Apolloni of Apolloni Vineyards says he sees a lot of enthusiasm for Italian varietals out in the market. Apolloni is currently the only vineyard in the Willamette Valley with estate-grown Sangiovese Grosso. It also grows Nebbiolo, but of the two varieties, he said Sangiovese seems better suited to Oregon’s climate and growing season.

Ponzi Vineyards also maintains its commitment to Italian varietals. It has been producing Arneis and Dolcetto since 1994, partly to indulge the family’s love for the Piedmont region of Italy, but also because these grapes, typically planted in cooler parts of Piedmont, seemed perfectly suited in the Willamette Valley.

So, how do they compare to their Italian counterparts? According to Winemaker Luisa Ponzi, “They definitely differ from their cousins in Italy, expressing a unique Willamette Valley character in terms of bigger fruit aromatics in the Arneis and more pronounced structure in the Dolcetto.” And with climate change in mind, Ponzi recently planted Nebbiolo, hoping for success.

Viola Wine Cellars is the only Oregon winery focused solely only Italian varietals. They primarily source Columbia Gorge fruit, due to the sheer diversity of microclimates, growing zones, geology and range of growing conditions.

Owner Darryl Joannides explained, “It’s an amazing opportunity to grow cool-climate, high-elevation alpine varietals like you’d find in Northern Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino, Alto Adige and Friuli. You get the warmer zones as you head east and you can actually get grapes to ripen that would be more limited to the center and south of Italy, like Sangiovese, Primitivo and Negro Amaro. This gives us a lot to work with, and all within an hour or two of Portland.”

Joannides said the best compliment he gets when showing his wines to buyers skeptical about Italian-style wines made in America is when they say, “This really tastes like — insert grape name — from Italy.”

Remy Wines has had a cult following for its Dundee Hills estate-grown Lagrein for years. They also source Dolcetto from Jubilee Vineyards in the Eola Amity Hills, and purchase a few tons per year of Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo from Washington. Owner/winemaker Remy Drabkin said their Lagrein is an incredibly adept varietal for the area, especially in light of the changing climate. “It’s thick skinned, a slow ripener, and naturally mold resistant due to the cluster morphology.”

She loves making this low alcohol, dense and sophisticated red wine, and it shows. “I'm Italian at heart. I had been producing my own Italian-style wines before starting the winery, so there was no reason to shift gears and be Pinot-centric when I was already producing great Italian wines.”

Drabkin is proud when her wines pass as native Italian wines, rather than New World iterations, and thinks it's important to demand the same quality from Oregon-grown Italian varietals that Oregon pioneer winemakers and growers demanded from their Pinot production. By producing outstanding products, Oregon can be defined as a distinct growing region for high-quality wines, regardless of their native origin.

Marc Girardet of Girardet Vineyards and Winery says that Sangiovese was the inspiration for him to grow Italian grapes. Girardet fell in love with Brunello di Montalcino in 2008 and decided to plant the grape in his vineyard.

Stylistically, his Sangiovese is more like a Pinot Noir, with elegant, feminine tannins, a lighter body and very juicy red fruits. In fact, he’s dubbed the wine “the Pinot Noir of Southern Oregon” because it would fit right into a Pinot tasting flight.

The Girardets also grow Barbera and Teroldego. The Teroldego is the newest, with the first vintage having just been bottled, but the Sangiovese appears to be most suited to the climate in the southern Umpqua Valley, with nicely balanced ripening.

“The southern end of the Umpqua Valley sits right at 43.1 degrees north of the equator,” Girardet noted. “The tiny town of Montalcino (where the best Sangiovese in the world is grown) also sits right at 43.1 degrees north. So, it’s meant to be, right? We have the Tuscany of the Northwest.”

In the Columbia Gorge, Marchesi Vineyards is growing Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Dolcetto, Pinot Bianco, and Arneis (which is struggling in the vineyard). Owner/winemaker Franco Marchesi started growing grapes in 2004, and with his Italian heritage, it seemed a natural choice to go with these varietals — though he admits it was a bit of a gamble.

“Northern Oregon has the same latitude as Piedmont and Veneto, and northern Italian varietals do well in our climatic conditions,” he said.

Cana’s Feast Winery created the Italy in the Valley wine festival a decade ago intent on highlighting the Northwest’s take on the classic wines of Italy. Winemaker Patrick Taylor describes the Italian peninsula as a phenomenal source of inspiration.

“With eye-popping landscapes, incredible wines, food, art, architecture… it’s a wealth of culture to draw from” he said. “From famed Piedmont, Tuscany and Puglia, they’ve sought to honor the traditions that have so far, made the largest contribution to the global wine-psyche.”

As more growers in the Pacific Northwest turn their attention to these previously over-looked grape varieties, Cana’s Feast will be making room in their family to produce more Italian heritage varietal wines.

Among the Italian varietals they’re currently priducing are Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Primitivo, Arneis and Pinot Grigio. In addition to their red blends, they’ve added a Northern Italian-inspired white blend called Vaso Bianco (Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Traminer, and Moscato). And their unforgettable and truly distinctive Italian Chinato program is based on Nebbiolo with a secret blend of alpine herbs, spices and other exotic botanicals, following tradition.

Taylor believes that the Italian varietals perform well in the Pacific Northwest, but acknowledges that Nebbiolo has taken the most work, patience and innovation because it’s apparently a fickle grape to grow.

“Nebbiolo would no doubt be more cooperative growing in a cooler spot, but don’t suggest that to grower savant/viticulturalist genius Jim Holmes and his son Richard,” Taylor said. “The two have made a lifelong pursuit of perfecting their passion for growing this special grape here.”

Like Joannides and Drabkin, Taylor also said the compliment that carries the most weight for him comes from buyers in the wine trade when they say, “These taste like Italian wines.” As Oregon winemakers strive to evoke the most prominent varietal characters for which these grapes are so well-recognized, they also maintain the unmistakable character of the Pacific Northwest. “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer, based in Portland, Ore. She is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.

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