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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Great Northwest Wine: Regional winemakers continue to embrace Italian red varieties

Mike Scott, a graduate of Washington State University, produces award-winning estate wines from his vines surrounding his home in East Wenatchee. (Richard Duval / Richard Duval)
By Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue Great Northwest Wine

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 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 Piedmont, Abruzzo, Tuscany and Puglia, but talented growers and winemakers are achieving success and finding an audience for their work with these varieties.

Helping to lead this charge is the iconoclast Charles Smith. Brennon Leighton and he combine to produce seven Italian-inspired bottling under the CasaSmith brand, which is part of their portfolio Wines of Substance.

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

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 rosé. Both are available at Craig and Vicki Leuthold’s tasting room in Woodinville’s Hollywood Schoolhouse, which opened Nov. 16.

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

CasaSmith 2017 Northridge Vineyard Cerva Barbera, Wahluke Slope $25: Leighton 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 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. Fortunately, there were more than 3,000 cases produced.

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 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 in 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. 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. 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 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 rosés 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, boysenberry and tart orange flavors on the palate – and is perfect with charcuterie.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at