Today’s thriving Washington wine industry got its start in the 1960’s when Dr. Clore began experimenting with European wine grapes at the irrigated research station in Prosser. He was convinced that central Washington could successfully grow these grapes.
To prove it he planted experimental vineyards throughout the area, some as far north as Lake Roosevelt where today there is indeed a vineyard and winery called China Bend. In these vineyards Dr. Clore planted many of the varieties that would become well known in the state. Perhaps the most well known in the early days was Riesling.
Riesling is just one amongst literally thousands of grape varieties that have evolved through the centuries. Fossil records show that grapes were climbing trees when dinosaurs were eating them. Dr Richard Smart has theorized that dinosaurs could see red better than white grapes and that white grapes may not have evolved until humans came along. In any case as grapes and humans traveled through the centuries together humans and animals would spot an interesting mutation amongst grape plants and reproduce it. In this way we have arrived at today’s enormous diversity in grape varieties.
The grape world has been divided into three large categories by ever busy human classifiers; vitis labrusca covers North American grape varieties such as Concords, vitis amurensis describes varieties native to Asia, and last but not least vitis vinifera groups together European grapes. The grapes native to North America tend to have very strong flavors which translate into wine made from them. In the deep south they make wine from an indigenous grape called Muscadet. Norton is another native North American grape which many wineries are cultivating east of the Rockies. The first bonded winery in Washington State was on Stretch Island and they made wine from a Concord vineyard. Since the nearby town overlooked this vineyard it was aptly named Grapeview.In past years Hoodsport Winery has made wine from this vineyard which they called Island Belle.
Because of the strong flavors associated with labrusca grapes they are not widely used in winemaking. When the root louse phylloxera first arrived in Europe (imported accidentally from the Eastern U.S.) the Europeans tried crossing labrusca and vinifera grapes to combine the phylloxera resistance of the labrusca and the flavors of the vinifera. They did not succeed but they created a number of hybrids with names like Marechel Foch. These hybrids are widely used in the mid west of this country where their winter hardiness, disease resistance, and productivity are appreciated.
In Washington State we tend to use vitis vinifera grapes although there are exceptions such as Hoodsport Winery and China Bend. In the U.S. as a whole we put the name of the grape on the label. Thus you’ll see names such as Riesling, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, and so forth. In France alone there are over 3000 different varieties. U.S. law requires that if the name of the grape is listed on the label the wine in the bottle must contain 80% of wine made from that grape. Some states have more stringent requirements. There are wineries that believe blending can make for interesting flavors and they create proprietary names for these blends. For example here at White Heron Cellars we make blends of four different varieties from Bordeaux, which we call Mariposa Vineyard Red.
The enormous number of variations of varieties, blends, and regions is what makes wine so complex to understand yet always intriguing and interesting.