OUR AVAs- Columbia Gorge
Columbia Gorge: scratching the surface
BY RONALD HOLDEN
For sheer size, the Columbia ranks fourth among North America’s great rivers, behind the Mississippi, the Saint Lawrence, and the Mackenzie. It drains a basin that extends from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean; it has twice the flow of the Nile, ten times as much as the Colorado. Some 150 miles from the sea, it courses through the Columbia Gorge, a chasm of basalt cliffs between The Dalles and Portland.
The Gorge is an area of unmatched natural beauty, wildlife and recreation, only an hour east of Portland. It’s also a unique area for grape-growing. The Columbia Gorge AVA, created in 2004, is influenced by two distinct climates: the dry air that blows down the Gorge from the eastern Washington desert, and the marine moisture that comes upriver from the Pacific Ocean. They converge along a 40-mile stretch between Hood River and Goldendale, creating a remarkable microclimate with as much as 30 inches of rain at the western end, and only half that at the eastern end.
The AVA boundary straddles the Columbia (that is, the Oregon-Washington border) at the western edge of the Cascades. Nearly 200,000 acres are within the boundary, though at this point only 500 acres have been planted with wine grapes; soils vary from volcanic mud flows to fractured basalt. On the Washington side, the vineyards are on plateaus and south-facing slopes high above the river. On the Oregon side, a cluster of vineyards and wineries around the town of Hood River produce a fair amount of pinot noir, grown at lower elevations in a slightly warmer climate. Further upriver, the landscape changes, with evergreen forests and fruit orchards giving way to dry-land desert. So far, two dozen wineries have taken root, with a handful of prominent winemakers moving from established ventures in eastern Washington and western Oregon to take up residence. Among them is Dr. Alan Busacca, retired WSU geology professor and longtime consultant to the industry, who jumped at the chance to plant a vineyard in the Gorge.
The result is a microcosm of experimentation, with cool-climate varieties like gewurztraminer, pinot gris, and chardonnay in Oregon, and high-desert reds like cabernet, syrah and tempranillo on the Washington side. As the AVA slogan says, it’s quite literally A World of Wine in 40 Miles. “There’s no place on earth like this,” says Busacca, “and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.”
Ronald Holden, author of Northwest Wine Country, blogs at cornichon.org