Get to Know Oregon Wine Beyond Pinot Noir
Oregon Pinot Noir has enjoyed much success, but the state is not a one-trick pony. Oregon’s diversity of climate and soil has encouraged winemakers to expand their viticultural horizons. Even the Pinot-centric Willamette Valley offers impressive plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
From the Columbia Gorge AVA—also shared with Washington but divided here by the Columbia River—come racy whites. In the Umpqua, Rogue, and Applegate Valleys of Southern Oregon, a mix of elevations and a moderately hotter climate ripens outstanding Viognier, Malbec, and both white and red Rhône-style blends. Many other grapes and different blends are being investigated throughout the state, all in limited quantities, but with some success.
Most notably, Oregon is producing terroir-driven Riesling and méthode Champenoise sparkling wines that have shown consistency across multiple vintages. These emerging trends have attracted dozens of winemakers, and that alone is a good indicator of quality.
In the Umpqua, Rogue, and Applegate Valleys of Southern Oregon, a mix of elevations and a moderately hotter climate ripens outstanding Viognier, Malbec, and both white and red Rhône-style blends.
Riesling: Flexible approaches
In the 1960s and early ’70s, the entire Pacific Northwest was regarded as too cold to ripen red grapes. As a result, Riesling was often the first grape that growers attempted. It withstood the cold and occasional frost and made serviceable sweet wines that could be sold within months of harvest.
Fast forward several decades and an important handful of Oregon producers are making Riesling a priority. Its stylistic flexibility is especially appealing. For consumers who prefer sweeter styles, it’s an excellent entry-level wine. The variety can also be delicious when finished bone dry; it can be made into a sekt-style sparkling wine; and, of course, it can deliver ultra-sweet late-harvest and ice wines.
Riesling offers other advantages. Top-tier examples cost far less than high-scoring Chardonnays, while inexpensive versions rarely turn generic like other cheap whites. When drunk young, it’s fresh and delicious, though a well-made Riesling, with the dynamic tension that comes from the perfect sugar/acid balance, can age for decades. Plus, alcohol levels are comfortably low, and the wine is usually bottled under screwcap, eliminating the risk of contamination from bad cork.
Statewide plantings (782 acres as of 2016) place the grape a distant third (behind Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, respectively) among Oregon whites, and fourth overall, accounting for about 3% of the total acreage. Dedicated producers, however, have found unique expressions for the variety in Oregon. Grown on the cooler, western side of the Cascade Range, the state’s Rieslings are refined and aromatic, with naturally high acidity that lends them good structure.
Sparkling Wines: New Ventures
For decades, Oregon’s sparkling-wine industry heavily came from one winery, which is still by far the largest producer of méthode Champenoise wines in the state. In recent years, others have followed suit, building on the state’s affinity for cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to make seriously good sparklers.
Can Oregon become the U.S. leader in traditional method sparkling wines? Maybe not in quantity, but as for quality, well, see for yourself.