Ken Robertson

Grapes of Italy get little respect

The Romans may be due the credit for spreading the gospel of the grape throughout the known world — or at least throughout their empire and beyond — but the more than 2,000 individual varieties of grapes grown in Italy get little notice in the Pacific Northwest.

When the revival of the Pacific Northwest’s wine industry began in earnest in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, our region embraced the wine grape varietals grown in France, especially from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions.

Washington wine grape growers and winemakers also proved their mettle with Riesling, the signature grape of the Germans. Oregon growers and winemakers in the Willamette Valley fell hard for the fickle, hard-to-grow Pinot Noir of Burgundy, and married their lives, their fortunes and their honor to it.

In the ensuing decades, Eastern Washington growers and winemakers soon discovered King Cab thrived in the 100-degree heat and long days of our summers, and albeit more quietly, so did Merlot. And though Pinot Noir did not thrive in the heat, Burgundy’s signature white grape, Chardonnay did. Those three joined Riesling at center stage.

A couple of decades into the revival, the most famous Rhône grape, Syrah, strode onto the Northwest wine stage, and soon sent Walla Walla Valley vintners into a swoon, abetted by besotted wine writers.

But the premier reds of Italy? At best, Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and other reds of Northern Italy are no more than bit players. The Italian red varietal most familiar to Northwest wine drinkers is Zinfandel, I suspect. But its origins reach back to Croatia, across the Adriatic Sea, and it apparently reached Southern Italy across that body of water. In the process, it also morphed into Primitivo.

Thus, it’s not surprising that when Wine Press Northwest decided to focus on Italian red wine varietals for the Fall 2017 edition of the magazine, only 67 wines were entered.

It’s not from lack of quality. Those 67 entries were awarded two double gold medals and 19 gold medals. And a number of the silver-medal winners were nipping at the heels of those top wines.

As might be expected, Sangiovese topped the gold-medal list with eight winners. Next was Barbera with five golds from 12 entries. Then came three medals for Nebbiolo, two for Dolcetto and one each for Zinfandel and Primitivo. And a surprise: a gold for the only Sagrantino entered.

If you’ve never heard of Sagrantino, you’re not alone. The grape is from Central Italy and is grown primarily in the area around the city of Montefalco in the Umbrian region. Although largely ignored in the Pacific Northwest, it’s also found a niche in Australia with several growers.

The gold medal winners came from a broad array of the Northwest’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Five were grown in the Columbia Valley, four in the Walla Walla Valley, three each in the Yakima Valley and the Naches Heights AVAs and one each labeled from Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, Lake Chelan, Willamette Valley and Oregon.

The high quality indicates there’s plenty of opportunity for grapes of Italian origin to thrive in the Northwest. In Wine Press’s recent Rosé tasting, about 25 percent of the gold medal winners also were crafted at least partially from Sangiovese.

These two sets of tastings from 2017 prove that the Pacific Northwest can grow excellent examples of Italian wine grapes. And, I would argue, our adventurous winemakers and grape growers ought to consider pioneering more sites among our AVAs for some of the roughly 2,000 Italian varietals we have yet to see here, especially the largely ignored white wines and the red wines of the Central and Southern regions of Italy.

You’ll be hard pressed to find any Aglianico, a favorite in southern Italy, or Nero d’Avola, the star grape of Sicily, for example.

And the white wines fare even worse. Yes, Chateau Ste. Michelle and a few others make Moscato-styled wines, but that’s about it. How about a nice sparkling Northwest alternative made from the grapes used in Prosecco? Or perhaps some wines made from Arneis, a white from the Piedmont. A bit of Arneis has been planted, but it’s still rare in the Northwest. Or Fiano, a delightful dry white from Campania in southern Italy that can trace its roots back more than 2,000 years? It’s been totally ignored.

Yes, we are fortunate to have plenty of wine varieties here in the Pacific Northwest. But bringing in a few more of these immigrants can only enrich our experience.

Wine words: aromatic and neutral grape varieties

Among the classic aromatic grape varieties are Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling. Anyone who’s sniffed a glass of any well-made wine from one of these varieties can easily understand the phrase. Their aromas usually are identifiable when compared with other varieties.

In the Pacific Northwest, I would argue that Albariño and Viognier, particularly when grown in certain American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), also fall into this mix. The signature aromas of these wines are largely due to high levels of terpenes, which are chemical compounds found in the essential oils of plants, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

These aromatic varieties contrast with neutral grape varieties. Often these are minor grape varieties that usually “produce bland-tasting, low-quality wines, but also encompass better known varieties such as the Melon de Bourgogne, Aligoté, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier and even classics such as Chardonnay and Sémillon,” Sotheby’s adds. “ these varieties are ideal for oak-maturation bottling and sur lie, and turning into fine sparkling wines because their characteristics are enhanced rather than hidden by these processes.”

Some might argue about the oak aging suggested for some of these varieties, but the distinction has been handy for wine lovers and is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

This story was originally published September 5, 2017 1:30 PM.

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