wine in the spotlight – viento grüner veltliner

Monday, June 14, 2010

This occasional series (see May 18 entry on Abacela albariño) profiles a single Northwest wine that is especially deserving of your attention. As I wrote in yesterday’s Seattle Times column, “The decades-long exploration of new (to this state) varietals has been turbocharged by the dozens and dozens of mini-wineries making their debuts, all seeking to carve out a niche. They want to offer consumers something other than the usual red wines, so they turn to barbera, primitivo, sangiovese, tempranillo and zinfandel in search of distinction. By and large, distinction eludes them. Rare among them is the bottle that displays any semblance of varietal character. Worse yet, so many of these $25-to-$30 bottles are popping up that they don't even separate themselves from the rest of the pack.”

There are also unusual white wine varietals and blends being offered, generally in very small quantities, often available only direct from the producer. These I find more successful and interesting, as a group, than the reds. The latest to catch my interest is this excellent grüner veltliner from winemaker Rich Cushman.

Cushman, whose all-too-brief Viento website signs off with “Born in the Gorge”, is a native of Hood River, the region’s biggest town and the epicenter for both its wine industry and its unparalleled recreational opportunities. He’s been making wine for more than a quarter century, but only recently, after much hard work, was able to move his winemaking back to the Gorge fulltime. There he is exploring the winemaking potential of the AVA (which includes both Washington and Oregon vineyards, on either side of the Columbia river) with his customary attention to detail.

Viento’s 2009 Underwood Mountain Vineyards Grüner Veltliner ($20) is his third vintage with this unusual grape. GV’s are almost always Austrian imports, and have become that country’s signature wine for most of the world’s wine drinkers. There is every reason to believe that the vine can do well here in the Pacific Northwest, if planted in the right location. The Columbia Gorge AVA, a small region that quickly transitions from sub-Alpine meadows in the eastern foothills of the Cascade mountains, to the dusty scrubland that comprises much of eastern Oregon and Washington, looks to be the right location.

The Underwood Mountain Vineyards occupy a breathtakingly picturesque site just three miles north of Hood River on the Washington side. Just north of the Celilo vineyard, these new vines are planted at roughly 1100 feet, on the flanks of an extinct volcano. The climate and region, notes the website, are reminiscent of Alsace, the Mosel river valley, and the banks of the Danube river valley. The nearest town is Bingen (BIN-jin), named for Bingen-on-the-Rhine in Germany.

With an average of 38 inches of rainfall annually, this is one of the rare sites in Washington that can (at least theoretically) be dry-farmed. Currently Underwood Mountain has 24 different varieties, with a strong focus on cool climate whites, including riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, pinot blanc, Müller Thurgau, siegrebbe, Madeleine Angevine, and this unique grüner veltliner.

I rated the 2007 vintage – the first for Cushman – at 89 points and noted that “it promises good – maybe great – things to come. Sleek and stony, the wine epitomizes the racy, slightly grassy, slightly peppery quality of classic Austrian Grüner, with a Pacific Northwest twist – a certain brilliant intensity to the fruit that reflects this northern latitude.”

The new vintage is even better. A lightly floral, mineral-infused, vivid wine, it displays the white peppery character natural to the grape, and a mix of citrus fruit flavors somewhat reminiscent of New Zealand sauvignon blancs. Excellent penetration and structure. Just 110 cases were produced. If you are interested in this wine, I suggest you contact the winery directly:

Contact: Rich Cushman


Paul Zitarelli said...

Paul - I'm wondering if you have tasted the 2009 Syncline Gruner from the same site, and if so, how the two wines compare.

I focused on winery visits during my last visit to the Gorge, but I'm eager to return and check out the vineyards - especially Celilo and Underwood Mtn.

PaulG said...

Paul, I have not yet had the 2009, but I did have the 2008 and liked it very much. Here's that review (from Wine Enthusiast):

Syncline 2008 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Columbia Gorge; $20
125 cases
First vintage all went to Viento; this is third leaf and James split it with Rich. This is barely 12% alcohol, from a cool site, close to mountain grown fruit. Long, loose clusters with small berries; they started stacking – for the age of the vines these were overcropped says James. PG: This is searingly tart, with sharp lime, barely ripe pineapple, green apple flavors. Maybe just a bare hint of white pepper in the nose. Encouraging start, displaying some youthful varietal character at moderate alcohols. Oyster wine!

Constance C said...

Being in Washington - have you heard of the EWBC kick off event happening in Seattle

If you're a Gruner Veltliner fan (Austria) you should definitely attend if you're not already :)

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