Fall 2011

Adventures in grape growing

How do cool coastal areas such as Vancouver Island and the U.S. San Juan Islands manage to produce wines from local grapes when it's often a struggle for warmer climates such as Eastern Washington and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley?

Growers in cool-climate areas have adopted a number of tactics, some of them almost as old as agriculture and winemaking, others as fresh as produce picked this morning. Among the tactics are practices as old as rocks and soil.

On Vancouver Island, for example, the vineyards at Cherry Point Estate Wines have fist-sized rocks stacked around the vines to soak up heat on sunny days and hold it into the evening. In the spring, newer technology allows Cherry Point and other vineyards to wrap the vines in heavy clear plastic that protects the vines from late frosts but allows the spring sunlight to come through.

Using techniques such as these and with careful site selection, Vancouver Island is having some remarkable success with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. This past summer during Victoria's annual celebration of wines, one of the events, called Vancouver Island vs. the World, a group of about 40 wine lovers, in a blind tasting, compared four island wines with wines from elsewhere in the world.

Most surprising to me were the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir comparisons. A Pinot Grigio from Averill Creek was tasted with Cloudline Winery's Pinot Gris from Oregon. Having tasted lots of high-acid wines from Vancouver Island since 2006, I was surprised at how well winemaker Andy Johnston kept its acids in check and at its display of mango and tropical fruit aromas and luscious honeydew melon flavors. The crowd liked it better than the Cloudline, but both were impressive.

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In the Pinot Noir comparison, between a New Zealand wine from Ata Rangi and from Starling Lane's 2009 vintage, the island wine again was much preferred. I frankly have little experience with New Zealand Pinot Noir, but the B.C. wine was awfully well made.

The island climate also produces Marechal Foch, one of the best French red wine hybrids, and several German and Austrian wine grapes, many of them bred specifically in the past century for the cool climates of those two countries.

Among the best are Siegerrebe, a cross between Madeline Angevine and Gewurztraminer; Ortega, a cross between Siegerrebe and Muller-Thurgau; and Zweigelt, a cross between Blaufraenkisch and St. Laurent.

Though little known in the United States, all three are rather widely grown in British Columbia, and in Austria, Zweigelt is the most popular red wine grape, with more than 16,000 acres planted to it as of 2008.

Lopez Island Vineyards in Washington's San Juan Islands has had some notable success with its Siegerrebe, winning a highly coveted double platinum award in 2007 from Wine Press Northwest with its 2006 and a double gold with its 2007 in the magazine's 2008 platinum tasting.

In addition, the variety is being offered by several wineries in B.C.'s Fraser and Okanagan Valleys, on Vancouver Island and on Washington's westside, including such well-known brands as Blue Grouse Vineyards, , Gray Monk Estate Winery and Mount Baker Vineyards.

Ortega has joined its German relative in the offerings of many B.C. wineries because it also is a dependable cool-climate white that produces good yields and can be made in a variety of styles to suit a summer patio, fresh Northwest seafoods and even curry dishes.

Zweigelt and its relative Blaufraenkisch suffer in spades from the same problem facing many German-named wines -- we English-speaking types have trouble pronouncing their names. But you shouldn't let that make your wine-tasting decisions for you. Instead, taste them.

Eastern Washington residents have been drinking delightful Blaufraenkisch under the better-known name of Lemberger, as made by Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain, since 1980. Both these reds make into versatile wines with some spicy aromas, bright cherry, raspberry and blackberry aromas and flavors and are typically earthy and fruit-forward. It's popular with a number of wineries such as Arrowleaf Cellars and Summerhill Pyramid Winery near Kelowna in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, Zanatta Vineyard on Vancouver Island and Garry Oaks Winery on Salt Spring Island.

Wine words: Cremant and Mousseux

Ah, we return to France for these delightful words, more necessary than ever since the champions of Champagne now insist we should apply that term only to wines made in the region of France that proclaims itself the creator of the world's first sparkling wines. Whether the French actually should get credit is a matter for another day.

What's really important to wine lovers is Champagne is not the only region of France that makes fine sparkling wines; thus, the Gallic purists have blessed us with two delightfully descriptive words for sparkling wines made in the hinterlands at the hands of outlanders -- Cremant, derived from the word from whence we get creaminess, and Mousseux, similarly found in our word mousse (think chocolate). Wines designated Cremant must be aged for at least one year and harvested by hand. And they are less bubbly than Champagne, as a rule.

For what it's worth, the Germans and Austrians call their sparklers Sekt, the Italians Spumante, the Spanish Cava and the Portuguese Espumante. So long as it's methode champenoise, not that cheap sparkling impostor also created by a Frenchman -- Charmat, which is fermented in a large vat, not in a single bottle -- it's all more than likely to be pretty good.

Ken Robertson, a Wine Press Northwest columnist since its founding, is a retired newspaperman who has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

This story was originally published September 15, 2011 5:54 PM.

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