The Columbia Gorge AVA, certified in 2004, is one of three cross-border AVAs shared by Washington and Oregon. For many reasons it is the least well-known and most confusing for consumers. And yet it is as stunningly beautiful and more viticulturally diversified than any of the dozens of smaller AVAs scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest. An excellent online visitors guide to many of the region’s top destination wineries can be found here.
The major wine marketing agencies of both states have yet to find a way to do effective joint marketing of the region, but at least both have a meaningful claim to it. (Contrast that with the Walla Walla Valley AVA, long marketed as a Washington appellation though many of its most important vineyards and wineries are located in Oregon.) The Gorge includes roughly 50 wineries, 90+ vineyards and 1300 planted acres (a small portion of that total is in the Columbia Valley AVA but outside the eastern boundary of the Columbia Gorge AVA).
What’s fascinating and confusing about the terroir is how it changes rapidly despite being such a small region – just 40 miles west to east. On its western Washington edge it contains south-facing, high elevation vineyards in the rain shadow of Mount Adams. The farther east you travel, the drier and warmer it becomes, the climate transitioning rapidly from maritime to continental. Across the river the eastern Oregon boundary, also a maritime climate, has much of its southern exposures shadowed by massive Mount Hood. Proximity to the river is a moderating influence on both sides, providing some spring frost and winter freeze protection, while bringing often fierce winds to bear on the vines. The average rainfall declines from 36 annual inches to just 10 as you travel west to east. Vineyard elevations range from sea level to as much as 2000 feet.
Bob and Lynette Morus marry their estate-grown Phelps Creek Vineyards fruit with grapes drawn from the Washington side. I asked Bob to comment on the various strengths of the vineyards he uses, and some background on his current releases.
Bob: The most important aspect is where the site is in the Gorge from west to east. North and south is very much secondary. An advantage on the Washington side is the broad swath of south aspect sites, especially due to Underwood Mountain. On the Oregon side a southern aspect comes in isolated pockets. Personally I think Pinot Noir does well on south and east-facing sites, but is challenged with a western aspect.
PG: Which of your wines use grapes from both sides of the river?
Bob: “Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. On Underwood Mountain my team farms a two-acre block of Pinot Gris at Gorge Crest. Traditionally we combine the Pinot Gris from both sites, yet treat them very differently in the winery. The Gorge Crest Pinot Gris is a stainless tank fermentation, while the estate Pinot Gris is barrel fermented in Acacia wood. Our standard Pinot Gris combines Gorge Crest with Estate Pinot Gris, aiming for 5 – 10% of the bottling having been barrel fermented.
“Chardonnay is a much different story. The South Hill vineyard perched high on Underwood Mountain is at 2000 feet. We quickly learned how the block stood out in terms of acidity. We like to balance the acidity in the South Hill with the more rich and tropical characteristics of our estate Chardonnay that is grown at elevations of 800 to 950 feet. Our standard Chardonnay is about a 50/50 blend, while the ‘Lynette’ is typically 80/20, dominated by estate fruit. The standard Chardonnay ages 10 months in 228L barrels while the Lynette goes 20 months in 500L puncheons. The sole purpose of the extended élévage in puncheons is to build mid-palate structure.
“We also are starting to get Riesling from both sides of the river. Along with the purchase of the Viento tasting room, we obtained Rich Cushman’s block of Riesling, first planted in 1981. The site is at 350 feet, well below the Missoula Flood level in the area, and holds lots of subsurface rock. We call this the ‘Pioneer’ block and look forward to its first release from 2023 grapes. Additionally we receive Riesling from the old Underwood Mountain Vineyards site planted by retired airline pilot Jack Brady and now owned by Phil Jones. The UMV location is east aspect and at around 1200 feet. Ernst Loosen once told me that he wanted that site for the Riesling project with Ste. Michelle, but the big house desired another location. The fruit from this site can be outstanding. However, vintage variation has made dialing in a consistent style difficult.”
PG: You’re one of the more established grower/producers in the Gorge. What trends are on the horizon?
Bob: “New developments in the Gorge tend to go in spurts. Hood River vineyards dates back to 1972, but most of the others which closely followed have faded away. The Great Recession seemed to put a pause on development for almost a decade. There was always a presence of well-established Willamette Valley wineries [such as Sineann and King Estate] who bought fruit from and praised the Gorge. This relatively below-the-radar exposure led to a next generation of Valley winemakers who privately confess their desire to settle in the Gorge. Today we are very active with new start-ups making exciting offerings. I’ve long thought that a well-heeled anchor tenant on Underwood Mountain would balance the presence of Maryhill to the east and help establish the region in consumers’ minds. The key is this: our region must move from garage wines to professional production with its inherent quality monitoring. It helps that the AVA is spectacularly beautiful.”
PG: Last thoughts?
Bob: “I would be remiss if we didn’t discuss Gewürztraminer. There are numerous great Gewürztraminer sites on the Washington side of the river. In my view this comes from the influence of the late Rick Ensminger, the original manager of the Celilo vineyards. Rick loved Gewürztraminer, and I swear he recommended friends plant his favorite grape in spite of the low price it traditionally received in the marketplace. Finally Gewürztraminer seems to be gaining respect. Our sales in London are crazy good and our importer suggests we may need to increase production. There’s no reason this grape couldn’t also grow on the Oregon side other than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate new vineyard blocks.”
My sincere thanks to Bob for taking time in the midst of crush to provide such detailed answers. Now on to the current Phelps Creek Vineyards wines.
Phelps Creek 2021 Gorge Crest Vineyard Gewürztraminer – A number of winemakers, notably Chris Dowsett of Dowsett Family Wines, have demonstrated that the Gorge is quite likely the finest site in the entire Northwest for perfectly ripened and balanced Gewürztraminer. Here’s further evidence – fleshy, spicy, aromatic without turning into soapy perfume, this fresh, clean wine puts the perfect blood orange acid frame around punchy apple and pear fruit. 160 cases; 13.8%; $28 (Columbia Gorge) 93/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Pinot Gris – The finest PG yet from Phelps, this blends grapes from both sides of the Columbia river but less than five miles apart. Precisely defined with citrus flesh and rind, grapefruit in particular, pure fruit pear flavors, a compelling minerality and naturally juicy acids. A natural match for any seafood or poultry with a lemony preparation, drink this chilled but not ice cold. Sealed with a screwcap for convenience and freshness. 500 cases; 13.1% $24 (Columbia Gorge) 92/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Estate Reserve Barrel Fermented Pinot Gris – This is the bomb. Fermented in acacia barrels, this reserve-level effort matches luscious apple, pear and papaya fruit to beautifully-textured barrel flavors. Light toast, light spice, full-on fruit power this through a long, lush finish dappled with barrel toast. 51 cases; 13.9%; ; $34 (Columbia Gorge) 94/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Chardonnay – Phelps Creek wines are hitting a new high point with the 2021 vintage releases. This sexy, spicy Chardonnay was fermented and aged in French oak, giving it a satiny butterscotch streak through a lightly toasty finish. The northern location of this cross-border AVA allows for natural acids to support and grace the ripe fruit without turning sharp, harsh or intrusive. Much in keeping with the 2018 Chardonnay from Phelps Creek, this brings flavors of green apple, pineapple and a touch of flaky, lightly toasted pie crust. A fine match for soft cheeses (not bleu!) and roast chicken. 440 cases; 13.8%; $36 (Columbia Gorge) 93/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Corduroy Pinot Noir Blanc – This shows a different side of the red grape, pressed quickly and fermented in the style of Chardonnay. The challenge is to craft a wine that does not too closely resemble white grape wines such as Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay; here it only partially succeeds – it could easily be taken for a Pinot Blanc. There’s a pleasing fatness to the core palate, with soft suggestions of lemon meringue and Key lime. The acids support the wine gracefully, and the medium finish continues on clean and fresh until it tails out. 53 cases; 13.8%; $65 (Columbia Gorge) 91/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Pinot Noir – Estate grown, full-bodied and nicely layered with fresh savory herbs, this is really too young to appreciate fully. Brown spices, purple fruits, a touch of chocolate and the firm and ripe tannins all suggest an ageworthy wine with excellent potential to further improve. That is not to imply that it isn’t good right now – it is – but more bottle age will smooth, soften and polish the rough edges. Drink 2025 – 2035. 1141 cases; 13.8; $34 (Columbia Gorge) 92/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Cuvée Alexandrine Pinot Noir – Consulting winemaker Alexandrine Roy is a fourth generation Burgundian. She calls the shots on this barrel selection reserve, which is fermented with wild yeasts and aged in one quarter new French oak. It’s a vin de garde (made to age) – firm, tight, compact, dense and layered. Black fruits, graphite, anise, earth and savory herbs are in play here. Give it plenty of gentle aeration or tuck it away for a few years. 298 cases; 14.1%; $55 (Columbia Gorge) 93/100
Phelps Creek 2021 Homestead Pinot Noir – This roasty/toasty estate-grown wine is all Dijon 115 clone Pinot, aged in mostly neutral wood to punch up the fruit. Sweet pipe cherry tobacco flavors coat the palate, leading into a finish framed with firm tannins and accented with woodsy mushrooms and dried tea leaves. This relatively light, well-integrated wine is good to go and brings a lot of pleasure immediately, but continues to add depth and detail many hours after being opened. Bonus point for the sheer pleasure it delivers! 71 cases; 13.8%; $52 (Columbia Gorge) 94/100