Get to Know Oregon Wine Beyond Pinot Noir | Wine Enthusiast
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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.

On the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, The Rocks District of Milton- Freewater AVA produces some of the country’s best Syrahs. From the Columbia Gorge AVA—also shared with Washington but divided here by the Columbia River—come racy whites, meaty Tempranillos and potent, old-vine Zinfandels. In the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys of Southern Oregon, a mix of elevations and a moderately hotter climate ripens outstanding Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Viognier, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, 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, Tempranillo 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.

An illustration of Oregon Riesling
Illustration by Kavel Rafferty

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 ultrasweet 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 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.

Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder of Chehalem Winery (now under new ownership), has lobbied seriously for a Riesling renaissance. Especially as he witnessed how 30- and 40-year-old vines were being pulled out to plant Chardonnay—“a travesty,” he says.

James Frey, winemaker/owner of Trisaetum, admits his focus on Riesling instead of Pinot Noir had some head-scratching responses. But his love for the grape’s natural acidity and ageability makes it, for him, “a rather magical wine.”

Other wineries producing Riesling include Holloran Vineyard Wines, Love & Squalor, Ovum Wines and Weinbau Paetra. But at the head of the pack is Brooks Winery, which produces up to 20 different Riesling releases annually.

Spotlight on: Brooks Winery

For Brooks Winery, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary since it was founded by Jimi Brooks, who passed away unexpectedly in September 2004. He was only 38 years old. For most startups, that would be the end of the story. But Brooks inspired those around him to make extraordinary efforts.

That year, a dozen of his winemaker friends stepped in to provide grapes and produce wines so the company could pay its bills. That, it turns out, was not just a happy ending, but an even happier beginning.

Brooks focused on Riesling and biodynamic farming before either was common in Oregon. It’s a big part of his legacy, which has been kept alive and thriving by his sister Janie Brooks Heuck, his son Pascal and Chris Williams, Brooks’ assistant, who became the full-time winemaker in 2005.

“It was Jimi’s favorite white,” says Williams. “It was half his production in 1998. He felt that the Willamette Valley was a good place to make Riesling. Today we make about 3,500 cases of Riesling.”

Those wines are divided among as many as 20 different versions in a single year, out of total winery production of 20,000–25,000 cases. The reserve Riesling, introduced in 2003, is called Ara. No acid additions are made to the wine, it’s biodynamically farmed, fermented to dryness with native (wild) yeast and aged for several years prior to release.

In January 2018, Heuck and Williams poured a vertical tasting of 12 vintages of Ara—2004 to 2016 (none was produced in 2013). Clearly a wine to cellar, the oldest bottles were among the best, including the 2006, which was served at a White House dinner during the Obama administration.

Oregon Tempranillo
Illustration by Kavel Rafferty

Tempranillo: Southern Oregon Star

In Oregon, Tempranillo owes its success to Earl and Hilda Jones, founders of Abacela Winery. Almost 30 years ago, they embarked on a quest to answer a seemingly simple question: Why were there no American Tempranillos to rival those of Spain? Scientists by profession, they set out to research where and how it might best be grown.

“Hilda and I concluded that wine quality in Spain was tightly linked to growing the grape in climates with a hot, dry summer followed by a cool, truncated autumn,” Earl Jones explains. That research led them, rather unexpectedly, to Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, where they planted their first vines in 1995.

Almost immediately, they found success. Their 1998 Abacela Tempranillo won a double gold at the 2001 San Francisco International Wine Competition, besting all other entries, including 19 from Spain. “We had accomplished the same thing with Tempranillo that David Lett had done with Pinot Noir,” Jones recalls. “We had found a new terroir that matched or exceeded the grape’s requirement for quality wine production.”

Today, Abacela (from the Spanish abacelar, “to plant a grapevine”) is working with a number of Iberian grapes. The winery also helped launch the Oregon Tempranillo Alliance, an association of some three-dozen producers from around the state. A recent symposium included talks on such topics as clonal research, along with tastings of Tempranillos from Oregon and Spain.

The growing interest and undeniable quality supports the thought that Tempranillo could become a Southern Oregon “signature” grape. It’s a variety, says Jones, that produces some of the best wines in the region, and is not already “owned” by any other American wine area.

Though it accounts for only 343 planted acres according to the most recent survey, in 2016, Tempranillo ranks a respectable fifth among all red grapes grown in Oregon. It’s a bit player elsewhere in the west, so why not claim it for here? As Abacela, Cayuse, Ryan Rose Wine, Weisinger Family Winery and others have shown, it makes exceptional, deeply  fruity, varietally expressive wines throughout the state.

Illustration of Oregon Sparkling wine.
Illustration by Kavel Rafferty

Sparkling Wines: New Ventures

For decades, Oregon’s sparkling-wine industry could be summed up in two words: Argyle Winery. Still by far the largest producer of méthode Champenoise wines in the state, the winery devotes about one-third of its 80,000-case annual production to bubbles.

Argyle releases up to 10 cuvées each year, including a newly expanded Extended Tirage program, which is laid down up to a decade prior to release. 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.

In the late ’90s, Tony Soter began making exceptional Soter Brut and Brut Rosés. Rollin Soles, Argyle’s founding winemaker, established his own Roco brand in 2001. His lineup includes a spectacular tête de cuvée RMS Brut. More than a dozen high-end Oregon sparkling wines have also begun to appear in the past year, including Pashey Cuvée Extra Brut and Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut, Elk Cove Brut Rosé, Lundeen Brut Blanc de Noirs, Stoller LaRue’s Brut Rosé, Lange Mia Mousseux Brut Rosé and more.

The source of this fizz explosion is a nondescript, unmarked warehouse on the outskirts of McMinnville, home of the Radiant Sparkling Wine Company. Proprietor Andrew Davis is another Argyle alum, and left there to offer wineries access to the expertise and specialized equipment required for true méthode Champenoise wines. More than three dozen wineries have signed on for his “cradle to grave service.”

Can Oregon replace California as the U.S. leader in traditional method sparkling wines? Maybe not in quantity, but as for quality, well, see for yourself.