Discovery

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Wine in a cool climate

Thomas Henick-Kling, the new director of Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program, focused on wine from western Washington during a recent reception at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

On the tables around him stood bottles holding wines made primarily from grapes grown in areas like Hoodsport, Bainbridge Island, Mount Vernon, and the San Juans. While eastern Washington regions such as Walla Walla and the Columbia Basin form the base of the state’s wine operations, there are now more than 50 commercial vineyards and 150 acres planted in wine grapes on the west side of the Cascades. The oldest vineyard represented was Bainbridge Island Vineyards, established in 1973. Most, though, have only started up in the past five years. They are very small operations, with just a few acres of grapes. The varieties include the Müller-Thurgau a Riesling-like grape, the Armenian Burmunk, and the Madeleine Angevine which comes from the Loire Valley.

Thomas Henick-Kling

Thomas Henick-Kling

“There are so many great varieties out there: Regente, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir. And some we haven’t even tried yet,” says Henick-Kling. He is looking forward to helping with evaluating new varieties for the region and looking at interspecific hybrids – grapes that are the result of crosses between European varieties and one or more American species. That would involve using native grapes to breed new grapes with ripening qualities, disease tolerance, and winter hardiness suited to western Washington’s climate, he says.

The way wine is made west of the Cascades could also differ from the east side efforts. Different yeasts and starter cultures can help bring out certain flavors. And since most of the wine on the west side is made in very small batches, Henick-Kling is hoping to work with winemakers to explore alternatives to methods already in use.

Henick-Kling has faced the challenge of wine in cooler climates before, particularly in his 20 years in Cornell University’s viticulture and enology program in New York State. When he arrived, the state could only claim about 70 wineries, he says. Today there are well over 250.

Wine bottle - Mount Vernon

Wine bottle - Mount Vernon

Others are starting to see the potential for western Washington wines. They can be quite different than their east-side counterparts, says Doug Charles ‘83, one of the evening’s guests and proprietor of Compass Wines in Anacortes. “They often have lower alcohol content and are more food friendly.” The whites, for example, are more distinctive, definitely with a more European feel. “They’re more friendly with seafood,” he says. “These are the types of wines people like to drink even though they can’t pronounce them.”

A few years ago, Charles had his doubts about the western Washington effort. But lately, he has been encouraged by the Pinot Noirs to come out of the region. “It’s still early,” he says. With the 2006 vintages people are just getting a taste of what could come.

Links

WSU Viticulture and Enology Program: http://www.wineducation.wsu.edu/