Winemakers say it’s a tough sell, but wine made from this winter-hardy grape is fabulous in the glass. Give it a try.
IF IT HAD a more palatable name, perhaps lemberger would be a star in Washington. Instead, it is little more than a curiosity, a footnote in our state’s viticultural history.
Lemberger is a red wine grape believed to have originated in Austria or Germany. It was first planted in Washington in 1941 at Washington State University’s experimental station in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser.
Walter Clore, “the father of Washington wines,” was an early promoter of lemberger, as he realized the winter-hardy grape could fare well in the Columbia Valley. He thought it could become to Washington what zinfandel is to California.
Three to try
Perennial Vintners 2013 lemberger, Red Mountain, $18: Using grapes from Kiona Vineyards, Bainbridge Island winemaker Mike Lempriere has crafted a deliciously straightforward lemberger with aromas and flavors of red cherry, ripe strawberry and a hint of cinnamon.
Kiona Vineyards & Winery 2012 lemberger, Red Mountain, $15: The Williams family has long been the champion of this obscure red grape, and this example shows off aromas and flavors of blackberry, raspberry and vanilla, backed with plush tannins.
Shooting Star 2012 Blue Franc, Washington, $13: This Northern California winery uses grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills. It opens with aromas of blueberry, ripe raspberry and black pepper, followed by flavors of vanilla and berry jam backed by mild tannins.
Some of the oldest existing commercial vines were planted in 1976, when John Williams and Jim Holmes acquired plants from WSU and added them to Red Mountain’s first vineyard.
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Alas, consumers were turned off by the name because it sounded like the stinky cheese Limburger. Some wineries tried using its German name — blaufränkisch — which might even be worse.
Kiona Vineyards & Winery continues to champion lemberger. Scott Williams, John’s son, is the head winemaker and produces about 2,500 cases a year from 17 acres.
“Selling it is like rolling rocks uphill,” he says wistfully.
Ironically, one of the largest producers of lemberger is a California winemaker using Washington grapes. Jed Steele in Kelseyville, Calif., makes a lemberger under the fanciful name Blue Franc for his Shooting Star label. Steele fell in love with lemberger after attending Gonzaga University in the 1960s and later while consulting for Ste. Michelle in the early 1990s.
Steele’s grapes are grown by Jarrod Boyle, who planted nine acres of lemberger in 1998 at Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. Boyle also makes a small amount of lemberger for his wine club at Alexandria Nicole Cellars. The wine is so popular, it sells out almost immediately.
At one time, perhaps 200 acres of lemberger were planted in Washington. Today, it is estimated there are fewer than 80. Paradisos del Sol, a small winery near the Yakima Valley town of Zillah, is among the most recent to plant it, establishing a couple of rows in 2011.
Lemberger is part of our state’s winemaking history. Sadly, it’s difficult to imagine the delicious red wine being a big part of our future.