Lemberger: Washington’s overlooked “heritage grape”
The name may stink, but it’s really about what’s in the bottle.
The Lemberger grape is rooted in Washington wine industry history. For more than a quarter century this vigorous grape, which begets a fruit-forward, ruby red wine, has thrived in vineyards east of the Cascade Mountain range. But a wine that sounds like a stinky cheese naturally has its share of skeptics – most of which are quick to pass Lemberger by when perusing store shelves for wine. Fortunately, the grape still has a number of champions in the industry today, and they are working hard to change its image.
The owner/operators of Olympic Cellars have been converting Lemberger skeptics to Lemberger lovers in their Port Angeles tasting room for the past six years.
“Once visitors get past the name they’re usually pleasantly surprised at what’s in the bottle,” says winery owner Kathy Charlton. “We want to help the Lemberger grape get the respect it deserves and help preserve our state’s heritage. So we introduce those who visit our tasting room to what they’ve been missing — call us Lemberger ambassadors!”
Some Lemberger History
The cold hardy Lemberger grape was originally planted in Central Europe. It came to Washington via Canada in the 1940s.
Then, in the mid 1960s Dr. Walter Clore (remembered as the father of Washington’s wine industry) experimented with Lemberger plantings in Prosser. The region’s long, warm sunny days and cool nights proved the perfect climate for growing Lemberger grapes, and the vines thrived in the area’s calcareous, sandy soils.
Experimental Lemberger wines made in the mid-late 1960s showed that the grape had great potential. A deep red color in the glass, the wine’s fruity character was often described as having notes of black cherry and spices.
In 1980 Kiona Vineyards Winery released the first Washington wine labeled as Lemberger. Since that time, however, Washington growers have been ripping out their Lemberger vines and replacing them with other sexier grape varieties.
But Really, What’s in a Name?
“Red wine preferences have trended towards big, bold, Bordeaux-style wines, at least until Sideways put Pinot Noir in the spotlight, and it became the rage,” continues Charlton.
“Lemberger wines are very similar to Pinot in style,” she adds, “medium-bodied with lots of bright fruit and soft tannins. It’s sure to appeal to Pinot drinkers, but people have been slow to warm to Lemberger, likely due to its unappealing name. But really — what’s in a name?! Our founder, Gene Neuharth, began making a Lemberger wine that he labeled, Dungeness Red back in 1979, and it continues to be one of our best-sellers to this day. People tried it and they liked it! It’s time to spread the word about this fruity red jewel and preserve our heritage.”
Paul Champoux, a longtime grower and owner of Champoux Vineyards, one of Washington’s oldest vineyards, concurs. Champoux has been growing Lemberger grapes since 1981, and currently manages 10 acres of this variety for six clients. His vineyards are located in the southwest corner of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in Klickitat County.
“Lemberger makes a fine, approachable wine,” says Champoux, “which is why I continue to grow the grape. Fruit-forward, medium-sized with soft-tannins – it’s great for the ‘new’ red wine consumer. People — give Lemberger a chance!”