Ken Robertson

New wine varieties invade the NW wine world

Innovation is the byword in Northwest world of wine as we enter 2016, which means it’s been more than 40 years since the start of our region’s modern wine era.

New varietals pop up almost faster than we can learn to pronounce them, let alone understand just where they originated, what they should taste and smell like and what foods pair best with them.

The Northwest’s winemakers and grape growers have spent much of the past decade presenting us with an ever-burgeoning array of new wine varieties, from Italy’s elegant white Arneis to Austria’s robust red Zweigelt.

Just when you thought you had learned to really enjoy Tempranillo, the signature grape of Spanish red wine, along came that nation’s favorite white wine, Albariño, and then the lovely red Graciano. And these aren’t likely to be the last we Northwesterners will hear of Spain.

Even such ever-dependable French varietals as Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay are being supplemented by such white varietals as Picpoul, Muscadelle, Melon de Bourguignon and Viognier. Then there is Mouvédre/Monastrell/Mataro. Should we call this world-traveler of a vine by its French, Spanish or Australian/California title?

And then there is Italy, a land where you could spend five years tasting a different varietal every day before running out of new experiences. And that assumes you would agree that a grape with two accepted and common names — for example the white wines Pigato from Liguria and Vermentino from Sardinia — really are the same tasting experience.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we Northwesterners had a rather stable list of choices and preferences: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, usually labeled Fumé Blanc back then. Many of us didn’t really want to hear about anything else.

At one of the early Tri-Cities Wine Festival events, I can recall a winemaker who looked at me as if I hadn’t showered in a week after I’d commented that I rather liked another winery’s nicely made Chenin Blanc and was surprised it merited only a bronze medal.

“Well,” he sniffed, “that’s not really a premium grape. It’s just second tier.”

Such attitudes lingered for a couple decades, driving out well-made wines that our region’s wine drinkers were not ready to accept and unwilling to try to pronounce. Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and even Sauvignon Blanc all fell victim to this narrow view.

In the industry’s start-up days, some of these acres soon were replaced with vines from the popular crowd. Grenache, which Chateau Ste. Michelle had planted in the Horse Heaven Hills near its new Paterson winery (later rebranded and renamed Columbia Crest), practically disappeared, even though the wines made with those grapes were excellent.

Some of our winery pioneers persevered, sometimes by switching their winemaking styles. For nearly 40 years now, Kiona Vineyards and Winery has produced a delightful Lemberger, a red wine from Austria, where it’s often called Blaufrånkisch. Kiona also transitioned its Chenin Blanc into an ice wine and its Sauvignon Blanc into a late harvest style dessert wine.

Most of our Northwest Gewürtraminers became semi-sweet and sweet wines designed to attract newcomers to wine and ideal for a summer patio-sipper. Only a few Alsatian-style, highly aromatic dry Gewürtraminers remain. And now that many of us have discovered the delights of curry with our chicken, lamb and tofu, both styles make an excellent accompaniment that can replace our ever-present Riesling.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc now are often blended into a perfect match for oysters on the half shell. Or vinified separately for a perfect accompaniment for oysters and almost any lighter seafood as well.

The once-ignored Grenache now gets top billing as the lead grape in Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedré (GSM) blends and is available as a straight varietal bottling as well. In fact, many wine lovers believe the blended Rhone reds have the potential to rival the Bordeaux-styled blends we embraced over the past decades.

With an industry that now counts more than 60,000 acres of grapes in Washington and 20,000 more in Oregon, with 870 wineries in Washington, 676 in Oregon, 322 in British Columbia and 52 in Idaho, there’s plenty of room for experimentation — in growing new varieties, in finding new styles, in winemaking and in creating food pairings.

Expect the next decade to bring wine adventures no one could have anticipated when the 21st century started.

Wine words: Remontage, Pigeage

Let’s be frank. English tends to be a blunt language that often verges on monosyllabic. Ah, but French sort of rolls off the tongue — much like good wine — fairly bulging with polysyllabic words that betray its heritage as a Romance language.

For when we translate remontage to English, its elegance disappears into pumpover. And pigeage turns into punchdown. The romance seemingly turns into the gruntwork of farming and boxing. Regardless of the language, both are key parts of the winemaking process and help turn red wine grapes into complex, full-bodied, deeply colored wines. Their purpose is to bring the fermenting juice of crushed grapes into increased contact with grape skins.

As fermentation occurs, the yeast release carbon dioxide as they turn the natural sugars into alcohol. The CO2 helps carry the skins to the top of the fermentation tank, separating them from the juice. Punching down this cap (manta in French) with poles both releases the CO2 and pokes the skins back down into the juice and breaks clumps of skins apart, exposing the juice to more skin contact. Similarly, pumpover takes wine from the bottom of a tank and pumps it onto the top of the skins, achieving much the same effect.

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