White Wines - Forget the Pinot
by Cole Danehower
Don't Miss Out on Oregon's Fantastic White Wines!
Here's a news flash: Oregon makes some of the best white wines in the country.
Say what?? "Oregon" and "white wines" don't seem to be much of a natural combination. After all, Oregon is known around the world as prime Pinot country, so who cares about Oregon whites? Smart consumers, that's who! Some of the best values in anybody's wine world are to be had in the world of Oregon white wines... if you know where to look.
Yes, despite the fact that Oregon is normally considered to be the New World's answer to red Burgundy, the reality is that in the last few years Oregon's red winemakers have quietly been revolutionizing the making of white wines - and savvy consumers have been paying attention... and getting some really tasty bargains!
Few people realize that the first modern wine grapes planted in Oregon were Riesling, not Pinot noir - or that the first Pinot gris vines planted outside of Europe were put in the soil of Oregon by David Lett.
And in some ways, the under-the-radar growth in white winemaking is a return to the most classic roots of Oregon's modern wine industry. Our earliest modern winemaking pioneers saw the potential for white wines here ("I believe the future for Chardonnay in Oregon is phenomenal," says David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards) and now - finally - today's most innovative winemakers are beginning to fully realize that potential in a new crop of delicious white wines that are changing the market's perception of what Oregon viticulture can accomplish.
Actually - and this will be a surprise to many people - making white wines can be much more difficult than making red wines. "We end up spending more time on Chardonnay than on Pinot noir," says Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles. "With Pinot the trick is to pick it right, then get it into the fermenters and let it alone. Chardonnay takes almost an entire mindset change."
More management of the grape must is often required of whites in order to keep the juice fresh and fruity, and there is a lot less room to "maneuver" in the cellar with whites then reds - less opportunity to manipulate a wine into a pre-conceived notion of what it should taste like. In fact, when you talk to many Oregon Pinot producers off the record, they'll finally (and perhaps sheepishly) admit that making their white wines is in many ways more challenging than making their reds.
The best news for consumers is that the market as a whole hasn't yet caught on to the rise in quality - so prices on outstanding Oregon whites are still very attractive. In fact, you can get some absolutely killer wines for under $20 - easily!
Here's a down and dirty look at the best bets in Oregon whites - if you have the guts to buck the market norm and spring for these beauties! And as a bonus, here are some food pairing ideas designed to maximize your enjoyment of each varietal.
Old World Home: Alsace
Best Reason to Try: Oregon is the home of New World Pinot gris!
Food Pairings: An absolute natural with Northwest Salmon (sure to convert white wine non-believers)! Also, a tremendous accompaniment to spicy Asian dishes (one of the best wine/food pairings I ever experienced was a WillaKenzie Estate Pinot gris and a Vietnamese vegetable soup) and Indian food. Yet at the same time, gris is a great summer sipper with oysters (raw, smoked, or barbecued) and almost any fresh fish dish.
Here's some news for wine writers like Oz Clark and Jancis Robinson, who barely even mention Oregon in their comments on Pinot gris in their books on grape varieties: Oregon is a world leader in quality Pinot gris. Period.
Want some evidence? How about Chehalem's Pinot gris. Rich, tart, complex, fruity, bracing, and a fantastic food wine, this is truly one of the finest Pinot gris I have ever tasted (and I can't wait to try their 2003 version).
Or, open up a bottle of the Bergström Pinot gris. One of Oregon's master Pinot noir producers shows a deft hand at the gris version of the Pinot plant, giving us a succulently smooth, yet elegantly fruity version of this cousin varietal to Pinot noir.
But why stop there? Here are some other Pinot gris wines that I can unhesitatingly recommend as good values, and good examples of what can be done with this increasingly popular grape:
Lumos Wines (made by Dai Crisp, well-respected vineyard manager and now winemaker) Pinot gris. Plenty of flavor punch in a well made example of straightforward Pinot gris.
Read more about Lumos and Dai Crisp: In the vineyard with Dai Crisp
St. Innocent. Winemaker Mark Vlossak does a rich and nuanced version of Pinot gris from Shea Vineyard grapes, that is as close to an aged Old World-style gris as you are likely to find this side of the Atlantic!
WillaKenzie Estate Pinot gris (always a solid and reliable rendition) is a great example of a great white wine vintage.
Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot gris (a stalwart of Oregon's white wine producers), this is a great example of great value in Piniot gris: assertive flavors, good character, great price.
Old World Home: Burgundy
Best Reason to Try: New clones and new winemaking mean an entirely new generation of Oregon Chards.
Food Pairings: For steely, flinty Chardonnay wines (which encompasses the best of Oregon's new Chards), try delicately sauced, white-fleshed seafood (halibut, especially), shellfish (particularly with garlic-scented sauces), and even pasta dishes (scallops linguine, anyone?).
There's a whole new crop of Oregon Chardonnays that are sure to change your mind about Oregon white wines. Three things make them different, and special.
First, the move to newer Dijon clones over older Clone 108 varieties has meant more reliable ripening and better flavor expression in general (though this is a broad statement - there are some superb Clone 108 Chardonnays being made).
Second, a move away from oak ageing and toward stainless steel (for fermenting as well as ageing) has meant a reduction in the ponderous, buttery style of older Chardonnays, and a move toward fresher, crisper, and more fruity wines.
And, third, a renewed dedication on the part of a number of wineries to disciplined viticulture and more careful winemaking has resulted in cleaner, brighter, and more "punchy" wines.
Which wines should you try? Any of the following will amply demonstrate the new quality of Oregon Chardonnay:
Brick House Chardonnay. This is an absolutely wonderful example of the genre, with crisp, clean, and forward fruit, and a tingly tart finish that brings you back for repeated sips.
Chehalem INOX Chardonnay. Flinty and flighty all at once, this light and flavor-packed Chardonnay shows what can be done with an emphasis on fruit and an absence of winemaking "technique."
Lumos Chardonnay. For a "first our of the chute" wine from Dai Crisp, this is a very appealing (dare I say it?) crisp rendition of Oregon Chardonnay that offers good value.
Bergström Chardonnay. No big surprise here. As in Burgundy, it seems if you make great Pinot noir - as Josh Bergström clearly does - you will make great Chardonnay - as Josh Bergström clearly does...!
Evesham Wood, Les Puits Sec Organic Chardonnay. Winemaker Russ Raney is always true to his sustainable winegrowing and making ethis, and true to his history of making exceptionally flavorful, high quality and high value wines - and this Chardonnay is in keeping with is heritage!
Old World Home: Germany or Alsace, Alsace or Germany?
Best Reason to Try: There are no better dry Rieslings being made in the New World than those being made in Oregon.
Food Pairings: When done dry, there are few foods that don't match well with Riesling. The usual suspects include seafood and pasta, but here are some unconventional pairings you should definitely try: roast pork, hot and sour soup, spicy lasagna, long-smoked barbecued chicken, and Chinese chicken salad - with an acid-forward dry Riesling, these dishes will amaze you!
There's a small but dedicated band of Oregon dry Riesling producers that are out to change the market's perception of this woefully underrated grape. Are they succeeding? Here's what one of America's most respected food and wine writers, David Rosengarten, has to say: "... the dry Rieslings of Oregon are indeed better then ever, immensely better, indeed a category that must be reckoned with on a world stage."
Which wines should you try to see what all this fuss is about? These are the wines to buy:
Chehalem Riesling Reserves. If these wines won't convert you to the charms of dry Riesling, then I recommend you never try another one because you are immune to the wiles of this grape!
Brooks Riesling. Tremendously fruity, but with added depth and great sophistication - a wonderfully food friendly wine.
Belle Pente Riesling. Winemaker/Owner Brian O'Donnel has made a mission of Riesling, and almost any of his releases are worthy of your attention - and your cellaring.
Old World Home: Rhône
Best Reason to Try: The up and coming white grape of Southern Oregon's warmer climate.
Food Pairings: Boy, just about anywhere you'd care to drink a white wine is fine for Viognier. The floral components can - surprisingly - match well against the gaminess of lamb, though a more reliable match would be chicken or turkey (yet, I am eager to try this varietal with game birds, as well).
The warmer weather of Southern Oregon seems to be well suited for the delicate, yet expressive, Viognier grape. In particular, this varietal offers more weight then Pinot gris, a different kind of fruitiness than Chardonnay, and more plump sweetness than Riesling - making it a popular choice for a wide variety of people.
If you haven't tried any Viognier, do consider Cristom. This venerable Pinot producer has a very viable version of Viognier, offering lush fruitiness, spicy floral notes, and more depth then the average Viognier.
Old World Home: Oregon (Old World and New World home, that is)
Best Reason to Try: The spicy sweet delight of this low alcohol, superbly satisfying wine.
Food Pairings: Why bother? Drink it alone! OK, so you might do well to pair it with fruit deserts, white butter cream cake, or even piquant cheeses and nuts. Or then again, you could drink it alone!
This delightful, lightly sweet, delicately sparkling wine is a true treat. Originated by winemaker Joe Dobbes when we was employed by Hinman/Silvan Ridge Vineyards, this celebratory wine is now made by Silvan Ridge.
You will undoubtedly be delighted by the spicy bite of the Muscat grape, the light floral sweetness of the residual sugar, and the stimulating spark of the incredibly tiny bubbles!
Check Out These Northwest Wines
Viognier - the elusive white grape
Pinot gris - Oregon's signature white
Chardonnay - NW's Burgundian White
Sauvignon Blanc - Rich, Alsacian styled, surprising
Dry Rosé - Perfect Summer Quaffer
Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier
Riesling - simple or delicately complex