Oregon has been producing wine since the mid 1800s. Ceasing during Prohibition and remaining dormant for thirty years after its repeal, winemaking resumed in the 1960s. Production has skyrocketed since, with the number of wineries soaring from five in 1970 to over 450 today, and Oregon ranks third in the U.S. in wine made.
Many varietals are grown, but two together far surpass the total of all the others combined in plantings and wine produced. Those two are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The cool wet winters and warm dry climate with few temperature extremes are ideal for Pinot Noir, and interestingly, Oregon is at the same latitude as Burgundy, the world’s greatest Pinot Noir producer.
The most well known and widely planted area is the Willamette Valley just south of Portland, but good wines are coming from farther south in the Rogue and Umpqua valleys.
Since Pinot Noir does so well, one might think that Chardonnay, the grape of white Burgundy, might flourish here, but the terroir seems to favor Pinot Gris, although Chardonnay is third most planted grape.
Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult grapes to grow and one of the most difficult wines to produce, but when done, right this grape can produce some of the most wonderful wines imaginable. It seems to be at its very best in three regions of the world – California, Burgundy, and Oregon.
The Pinot Noirs from Burgundy tend to be elegant, delicate, and complex with flavors of sour cherry and red fruits. There is a generous acidity and minerality – and unfortunately it can come with a high price tag. Some of the most otherworldly wines on earth come from Burgundy but can cost several hundred or even several thousand dollars a bottle. California Pinot Noirs tend to be higher in alcohol, lower in acidity, and much more fruit forward, with dark fruits often joining the flavor profile. While some of the best are quite pricey, they tend to be much more affordable than those from Burgundy.
Oregon Pinot Noirs are a delightful compromise between California and Burgundy. Like Burgundy, they tend to have a bit more acid, are elegant and complex, and can demonstrate a beautiful earthiness that brings out the best in food. The intensity of fruit tends to be somewhere between the wines of the other two regions, with some California-like dark fruits showing through. The wines are lighter bodied than California Pinots but not quite as light bodied as their Burgundian cousins. Even the prices seem to average somewhere between those of Burgundy and California.
Producers in Oregon tend to be smaller, which is probably one of the reasons their wines are costlier than those from California, but they are worth the price. Some of my favorites are Halloran Stafford Hill ($19.49), Sass ($20.99), and Patricia Green (several bottlings from $30-60). Brooks makes a great little wine called Runaway Red, named for a barrel of wine that fell off the wagon and rolled down a hill. It sells for $24.99. Joe Dobbes makes wonderful Pinots, and his entry level Wine by Joe is very good for $19.99. Finally, there is a bargain Pinot that is one of my best selling event wines, Underwood, for only $11.99 that is surprisingly good.
Pinot Gris is a white varietal that originated in France, where it is now grown primarily in Alsace. A clone was taken to Italy (and later brought to California) where the grape has flourished under the name Pinot Grigio. Although the grapes are essentially the same, the wines produced in the two regions are very different. Italian Pinot Grigios are light bodied, crisp, and fresh with vibrant stone fruit flavors and floral aromas. The vast majority of California Pinot Grigios are made in this same style. Pinot Gris from Alsace is much more full bodied, richer, spicier, and more viscous than its Italian counterpart. While Pinot Grigios are meant to match with seafood, chicken, and salads, Pinot Gris is best with heartier fare like salmon, pork, and veal.
Once again, Oregon seems to be securely in the middle. Pinot Gris from here has the richness, spice, and texture of those from Alsace, but somehow captures some of the vibrant fruitiness of the Italian style. The best of both worlds. Try King Estate ($17.99), Sass ($13.99), Van Duzer or Elk Cove for $17.99 and Acrobat, a bargain for only $10.99.
Oregon Pinot Gris is a wonderful alternative to other whites and is spectacular with food.
Oregon makes very good and sometimes stunning Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Next time you are contemplating having salmon or pork and are looking for that special wine, talk to your wine guy about this remarkable region.