Northwest’s top winemakers embracing Italian red varieties

Winemaker Charles Smith produces seven Italian-inspired bottlings under the ViNO CasaSmith brand.

Among the fascinating themes to emerge from this fall’s Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition was the delicious interest in red Italian varieties among some of our region’s top winemakers.

The recent string of warm vintages has proven advantageous to those with the passion to work with some grapes native to Italy. Varieties such as barbera, montepulciano, sangiovese and zinfandel now are thriving in hot pockets of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, the Wahluke Slope and the Snake River Valley don’t have the history or reputation of Piedmonte, Abruzzo, Tuscany and Puglia, but talented growers and winemakers are making award-winning wines with these varieties.

Helping to lead this charge is the iconoclast Charles Smith. The winemaker has produced seven Italian-inspired bottling under the ViNO CasaSmith brand, which is part of their Wines of Substance portfolio.

Last year, winemakers in Washington crushed 1,700 tons of sangiovese, which ranked sixth among all red grapes. It’s difficult to foresee sangiovese overtaking fifth-place malbec (3,900 tons) — and much of the sangiovese is devoted to the production of rose.

Maryhill Winery used Italian varieties to win a trio of gold medals at this year’s Great Northwest Invite, including a red table wine example of sangiovese and a rose. No doubt both will be available at Craig and Vicki Leuthold’s new tasting room at Woodinville’s historic Hollywood Schoolhouse, which is set to open Nov. 16.

More than a dozen of the Pacific Northwest’s most influential wine merchants, restaurateurs, sommeliers and journalists meet at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Oregon, to judge the Great Northwest Invitational, so you can expect to see these gold-medal winners on wine lists, wine shops and grocers in our region.

ViNO CasaSmith 2017 Northridge Vineyard Cerva Barbera, Wahluke Slope, $25: Charles Smith shows his talent with this Piedmont grape grown by Jerry Milbrandt on the warm, dry Wahluke Slope in Eastern Washington. This fruit-forward, well-balanced wine runs the red fruit spectrum, showing bright cranberry, red cherry and raspberry, as well as blueberry. It was chosen as best of class and earned a rare and unanimous double gold medal.

Maryhill Winery 2016 Proprietor’s Reserve Barbera, Columbia Valley, $42: Striking the right balance between sweet fruit and earthy leather aromas, winemaker Richard Batchelor produces a bottling well worth seeking out at any of Maryhill’s four tasting rooms across the state. The fruit comes from Gunkel Vineyard near the Goldendale vilification facility, and 40% of it was aged in new oak for 18 months. It offers pleasing acidity, flavors of raspberry and red cherry, and a pinch of leafy herbs on the finish.

Martin-Scott Winery 2017 Needlerock Vineyard Montepulciano, Columbia Valley, $32: Wenatchee Valley producer Mike Scott planted two blocks of this Tuscan grape within his picturesque vines that overlook the Columbia River downstream from Wenatchee. His latest example opens with dark cherries, sarsaparilla, rosemary sprig and crushed rocks. The palate shows the same cherry fruit, adding increasingly savory notes like tobacco and earth. It’s oh so mineral-driven with subtle, yet building, tannins to finish.

Koenig Vineyards 2016 The Devil’s Bedstead Zinfandel, Snake River Valley, $30: Greg Koenig has become smitten by the possibility of zinfandel when planted in Idaho’s hottest spots. His latest opens with lush red fruit and dried rosemary. The palate is unexpectedly fresh given the 15.6% listed alcohol, full of raspberries, herbs, wet earth and dark chocolate. The finishing tannins linger.

Thurston Wolfe Winery 2017 Zephyr Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel, Horse Heaven Hills, $20: This single-vineyard zinfandel from a site that Wade Wolfe helped plant near the Columbia River offers blackberries, plum, star anise, and cacao nibs on the nose. The palate is expansive, offering plenty of dark fruit and savory wood tones.

Maryhill Winery 2018 Rosé of Sangiovese, Columbia Valley, $17: Some of the Northwest’s top roses are produced using sangiovese, and the Leutholds continue to reap the rewards. This opens with strawberry and watermelon aromas with a hint of orange, then delivers strawberry, bright boysenberry and tart orange flavors on the palate. It’s a guaranteed pleaser for the charcuterie lover.

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