North country wines
By Sue Madsen
Fine wines from east of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington have put the Northwest on the map as a favored grape growing region. The high desert conditions of the eastern Cascades are typified by hot dry days and cool nights similar some of some of the best European appellations.
Like craft brewing, small-scale winemaking caught fire in the late 1990s, and the enthusiasm for Northwest wines spilled over the Cascade Crest, leading to the establishment of a plethora of small wineries in western Washington and the Fraser River Valley in B.C. Local vintners are bold, unafraid to experiment and passionate about their products, offering an intriguing variety of both traditional as well as hard-to-find varieties of wine.
Three main factors influence the type and quality of grapes grown for wine production: climate, geology and geography. This combination of characteristics comprises the grapes’ “terroir,” which can be loosely translated as “sense of place.” Small differences such as the type of rock the soils of a vineyard are derived from, the length of day during the peak growing season or location on a hillside rather than level floodplain result in vast differences in which grape variety will
The Mt. Baker region spans the 49th parallel, and is therefore located towards the top of the band of latitude (~32 degrees N to 51 degrees N) where wine grapes grow well. One positive aspect of this location is our long summer days during the growing season; Washington vineyards receive about two hours more sunlight per day than Napa Valley.
Our cooler climate tends to lend itself to production of white wine grapes, such as chardonnay and Riesling, as well as early ripening red wine grapes like pinot noir. Local vintners have experimented with a wide variety of grapes to identify the ones that perform best on their particular patch of ground, and thus less typical varieties such as Malbec and Viognier are readily available.
One of my local favorites is Madeline Angevine, a crisp dry white wine with a flowery aroma that pairs especially well with seafood. With Whatcom County now representing the top berry producing region in the U.S., fruit wines are also common and worth a taste.
A leisurely road trip to sample local wines makes for a fine fall outing. Most wineries have tasting rooms and are happy to provide both samples and a wealth of background information about the particular wines they produce. The Fraser Valley, Skagit Valley and the San Juan and Gulf islands are all grand places to grab a designated driver and embark on an exploratory tour. x