Alsatian varietals take center stage
by David Marglin
Grapes were first brought to Oregon in the 1800s, but its wine
industry didn't get started till 1959 -- and it didn't really get going until
UC Davis grad David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards started planting pinot noir in 1966.
The early winemakers thought Oregon was going to be a lot like Burgundy, given
the similar latitudes and climates. Thus they focused on Burgundian grapes --
pinot noirs and chardonnays. To some extent, this was a success. Oregon is
always going to be known for its pinot noir. But things have not gone so well
Some say that the winemakers haven't been using the right clones, and that now
that more clones from Burgundy are yielding fruit, the chards are going to get
better. But most Oregon chards have yet to impress me. The same is true of
Oregon sparkling wines, although I do like Argyle's 1996 Brut and their
incredible single-vineyard Knudsen-Erath Sparkler. The Brut is tony and totally
together; the very high-end Knudsen is hard to find. Both point toward good
sparklers in the future.
On the other hand, I am a huge lover of Oregon pinot gris, especially with food
(fish, mostly), and always when the weather is hot. These
beauties blow away almost all other US pinot gris (and many an import too).
The pinot gris grape traditionally is grown not in Burgundy, but in
French wine region to the northeast. Alsace is known mainly for its sublime
rieslings, but it also excels with pinot gris, pinot blanc, and
And guess which grapes Oregon is starting to turn into
liquid gold? If your answer was "all of the above," then you're in luck. Oregon
winemakers have started making some amazing wines from these four grape
varieties, and they're selling many of them for less than $20 a bottle, and in
some cases less than $10.
Pinot gris is really the classiest of this bunch. But I have also marveled at
the gewürztraminer and pinot gris from Foris Vineyards, which is in the
Rogue Valley, in the southwesternmost corner of Oregon. Their pinot gris wins
awards, and their gewürztraminer tastes like fresh apple juice -- I have
been known to have it for breakfast. It's not flashy, but vibrant and really
Gewürztraminer and pinot blanc account for fewer than 200 acres apiece of
harvested grapes in Oregon, compared to 3100 acres of pinot noir and almost
1250 acres of chardonnay. Pinot gris weighs in at about 1100 harvested acres. I
daresay you are going to see these numbers rise. (Bear in mind that, at
present, only about 7500 total acres of grapes are harvested in Oregon.)
Pinot gris and pinot blanc are both rather fruity in their Oregonian
renditions, and most of the gewürztraminers and rieslings I've tried have
lacked subtlety. But all four will go well with late-summer seafood, and
they're all good chilled.
They are, however, hard sells. No matter how much you tell people that these
wines are great, the majority of white-wine drinkers, especially those whose
tastes run toward New World whites, are still reaching for chardonnay and
sauvignon blanc and Rhône varietals like viognier.
My sense is that this is going to change -- and summer is a good time for
change, when foods are bolder and spicier and people want to cut loose and try
some new wines. Oregon whites have hit their stride with these four varietals,
and I encourage you to try any that you can get your hands (and lips) on. These
are a few I liked. All are between $10 and $20 a bottle, with most closer to
Hinman Vineyards 1998 Riesling Willamette Valley. Quite apple-ish, with
medium acid. Good with salads, carrot soups, or grilled seafood, and most
excellent on hot summer evenings.
Willakenzie Estate 1999 Pinot Gris. Every year this favorite shows clean
and complex flavors, with notes of pear, peach, and hazelnut. Great with
grilled fish or barbecued pork.
Willakenzie Estate 1998 Pinot Blanc. Great winemakers tend to make great
wines, whatever the grape. This sharp, tangy wine is more about crisp
fruit. It wants the grill taste, especially mesquite, but it can tame teriyaki
Foris 1998 Gewürztraminer Rogue Valley. Great gewürz, Batman!
Alsatian in style, well-balanced, with Granny Smith apples and some lychee on
the back. A mellow, approachable wine, great with hummus, fried rice, and other
Foris 1998 Pinot Gris Rogue Valley. Pear and a very full mouth, with
handsome tropical fruit -- even a banana note on top of that white peach -- yet
all very restrained. This wine is like buttah with rainbow trout in a hazelnut
crust, or a seafood stew.
Chehalem 1998 Pinot Gris. Very light and fruity, with apples, pears, and
even some pine nuts. Its finish is a tad closed, and it leans too much toward
ginger ale, but with air it settles down nicely. Great with spicy tofu medleys,
curries, or barbied shrimp.
Panther Creek 1997 Melon Stewart Vineyard Willamette Valley. A
non-Alsatian alternative. Melon makes muscadet wines, and those tend to be
somewhat dry and pétillant. In Oregon the wine comes out more lush and
ripe, with pear, vanilla, and some allspice. This is great with fresh
shellfish, fried clams, or mahi-mahi -- anything with tang.
I got a lot of comments about a
recent column on
glassware, in which I
paraphrased claims from a major glassmaker that the thin, delicate glass of
handblown $100 stems helps separate sediment from liquid.
Science seems fairly certain that the thickness and "texture" of the glass have
little to do with this phenomenon, so I am backing off these claims. I will say
this: when I use delicate Riedel or Baccarat glasses with sediment-laden wines,
I seem to get less sediment in my mouth, and leave more in my glass. Why this
is, I cannot explain scientifically. The main point, which bears repeating, is
that glass -- any glass -- is preferable to any other kind of vessel.
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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