Think Oregon, drink Pinot?21st November, 2013 by Alex Down
There has never been so much great wine being produced. Time and time again, I am surprised and excited, not only by wines from regions that I have never explored before, but also by those that I thought I knew inside-out!
For this reason, I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to tasting wine – I take an all-embracing stance. That said, I have learned from experience that when it comes down to brass tacks, I am unapologetically a Riesling and Pinot Noir guy. It’s just the way I’m programmed.And when it comes to wines produced from these two grape varieties, Oregon is the place I want to be.
Oregon lies on the north-west coast of America between the States of California and Washington. Over the years, it has earned a reputation for producing elegant, high quality, hand-crafted wines and its cooler, maritime climate lends itself perfectly to the production of Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Yet, while there is no doubt that Oregon is producing some sublime expressions from both of these grape varieties, they have both led very different lives over the past couple of decades.
Take Pinot Noir for example. Pinot is unquestionably Oregon’s number one success story, its poster child. The past couple of decades have seen Oregon become synonymous with producing distinctive, high end Pinot Noirs. Over 50% of the vines planted in Oregon are dedicated to this grape and this figure continues to increase year on year as its popularity goes from strength to strength.
Nowadays, Oregon is even home to the infamous ‘International Pinot Noir Celebration’, an annual three-day bash where thousands of thirsty delegates descend on Oregon Wine Country to celebrate what Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame) refers to as “this haunting and brilliant grape variety”.
I have had the pleasure of drinking Pinot Noir from a number of Oregon wineries over the years. The likes of Elk Cove, Bergström, J. Christopher, immediately spring to mind, bringing back happy memories of beautiful soft, silky Pinots with generous amounts of red fruit.
Riesling, on the other hand, has had more of a bumpy ride in Oregon over the past few decades. Some thirty years ago, Riesling was the white grape du jour, with its vines constituting around a quarter of the planted acreage in the State. Nowadays, however, this number has been whittled down to around the 5% mark, as many Riesling vines have been ripped up to make way for the more fashionable Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lately, however, there have been indications that there are brighter times ahead for Riesling. Figures show that there has been a rapid growth in Riesling sales in Oregon over the past five years. One of the main drivers for the renewed interest in Riesling has been the city of Portland. Only a few miles to the east of the Willamette Valley – Oregon’s premier growing area – Portland’s thriving restaurant scene has embraced this versatile and noble grape variety, triggering an increase in the number of plantings.
But, there is actually another aromatic grape variety alongside Riesling which has also been able to flourish in Oregon’s cool, maritime climate – Pinot Gris. In fact, Pinot Gris has done more than flourish as its annual tonnage is now 3 times larger than Chardonnay in the State!
The typical style tends be fresher and lighter-bodied than the Alsace Pinot Gris we often find in the UK, exhibiting stone fruit characteristics, such as white peach, as well as pineapple and lychee. Like Riesling and Pinot Noir, its elegant style and clean, fresh acidity (thanks to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean) makes it very versatile and food-friendly.
Oregon cannot be said to be an emerging or “up-and-coming” wine region as it has been producing quality wine for decades. But, in UK terms, I think it would be fair to label it in this way. We are seeing more Oregon wine hit our shores than ever before but it still remains for many a boutique wine category.
Price will be an issue for some, but does first class German Riesling or Pinot Noir from Burgundy come cheap? Certainly not – the quality justifies the price tag. The same principle should be applied to the wines coming out of Oregon. The estates tend to be small, the quality high and the wines have character and a sense of place.
At the end of the day, if there is one region in the world that encapsulates the style of wine that I like to drink, it is Oregon. The question is, will you join me?