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Columbia Gorge: Washington's shared corner of perfection


One of the newest appellations in Washington State, the Columbia Gorge, was formed in 2004. It spans the Columbia River, separating the states of Washington and Oregon, and is one of the most unique climates in the world. The gorge itself is a huge gap where the river breaks through the Cascade mountain range, and this allows temperature transitions found nowhere else in Washington State.

The entire appellation is only 300 square miles, and has only 500 planted acres, but is home to some of the most prestigious wines in the state. Within that small area are many different microclimates, which allow for optimal growing conditions of a staggering array of varietals. At the westernmost side of the Columbia Gorge one finds heavy rainfall, and much colder-climate growing conditions, while at the easternmost side one finds a much hotter, drier climate, more similar to the Columbia Valley region.

It is in the western side of the Columbia Gorge that one finds most of Washington’s most famous pinot noir producers, many on a par with the famous pinot makers of Oregon.

Columbia_River_Gorge_2The Columbia Gorge makes an excellent wine-tasting day trip for visitors to Portland, located just over an hour drive west. Wine tasting on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the border is a major industry, with smaller, boutique tasting rooms everywhere. Often these tasting rooms are staffed by the winemakers themselves, generally men and women with a passion for terroir-driven wine of only one or two varietals.

Every major varietal can be found grown in the Columbia Gorge appellation, small though it is, and a huge number of lesser-known grapes can be found as well. Prices are significantly lower than in key regions of California and Oregon, and excellent values can be found here. As in most of the smaller regions of Washington State, distribution among the smaller wineries is relatively limited, offering great opportunities to pick up bottles of wine which can’t be found in any store or restaurant.

Touring the Columbia Gorge is also a wonderful experience in terroir. Moving only a few miles in any given direction yields a completely different growing environment, and a different varietal focus. In addition to the shifting temperatures and humidity, the soils change hugely – from the rich volcanic soils of the western region (running along the base of Mount Hood and other volcanoes) to the basalt earth of the eastern Gorge.