For Northwest wine lovers, Oregon no doubt prompts thoughts of Pinot Noir. With good reason.
Of the state’s nearly 41,899 acres of wine grapes in 2021, some 25,123 were planted in Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris was a distant second at 5,740 acres, followed by 2,724 acres of Chardonnay, 1,739 of Syrah and 1,592 of Cabernet Sauvignon.
That seems to say Oregon’s wine world is not overly diverse in the varietals grown there. Most of its grapes come from the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area’s 3.4 million acres, which makes it roughly one-third the size of the 11-million-acre Columbia Valley AVA.
But if you dig a little deeper, some interesting experiments begin to appear. More than 20 other wine grape varieties are grown in the Willamette. They offer opportunities to discover some obscure wines that are rarities in our region. And they also can bring a respite from Oregon’s endless onslaught of Pinot Noir and its clones.
While some Pinot Noir fans never tire of sampling every iteration of their favorite grape and discovering how it can be made a smidgen differently by an imaginative winemaker, one’s Pinot palate can get a bit tired.
A friend recently recounted hearing a wine tourist ask a tasting room attendant, “Don’t you have anything besides Pinot?”
A number of winemakers and growers in the Willamette have been paying heed to such inquiries. For example, I’ve discovered a number of rarities, including Auxerrois, Grüner Veltliner, Melon, Pinot Meunier and Gamay Noir.
In addition, there are many other more common grapes not normally associated with the Willamette Valley, including Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Malbec, Müller-Thurgau, Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
On a recent weekend jaunt with friends, for example, we tasted an array of excellent Pinots, but also found plenty else to enjoy.
Here are a few highlights: Longtime Pinot Noir producer, Raptor Ridge, was pouring Auxerrois and Grüner in its tasting room, along with a few Pinot Noirs and a Chardonnay.
Raptor Ridge’s 2020 Auxerrois ($30) from Zenith Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills was limited to 300 cases but enough to make it one of the largest producers of the varietal in the Willamette Valley. It showed subtle layers of lemon-lime, a bit of pear and a fairly mellow acid profile. It also has a Chardonnay-like texture in the mouth that makes it a great fit for seafood with a touch of sweetness.
The other surprise at Raptor Ridge was its 2022 Grüner Veltliner ($30) with 400 cases made. According to the folks at the winery, their Tuscowallame Estate site in the Laurelwood District nested within the Chehalem Mountains American Viticultural Area, is one of only 29 Grüner plantings in North America.
It’s a bright drink that shows off lovely herbal and lime notes, then flavors of lime and bright acidity, true to its Austrian heritage, where Grüner is more than 30 percent of the grapes planted. If you love Sauvignon Blanc, there’s a good chance you’ll also enjoy Grüner with its similar aromas, flavors and textures.
The Willamette also produces great Sauv Blancs, and the 2022 from the Stoller Wine Group’s Chemistry project ($25) and winemaker Karl Weichold was clearly the consensus favorite of the weekend for our group of five veteran tasters, all with three or more decades of sipping the region’s best wines. Its aromas of starfruit, lime and just-watered grass combine with the lime and starfruit flavors and its vibrant juicy acidity to make it a perfect late-summer patio sipper. And with a production of 4,600 cases, it shouldn’t be difficult to find around the Northwest.
Stoller offers a flock of Pinot Noirs as well, plus outstanding sparkling wines. We all greatly enjoyed the nonvintage $40 Estate Brut made from Pinot Noir (98.5%), Pinot Meunier (1%) and Chardonnay. Its bubbly nose shows off notes of ginger, pear and anise, with bright flavors of ginger, pear and citrus. Its acidity is beveled a bit by aging on the lees.
Another way the Willamette wineries are broadening their offerings is to bring grapes from the dry east sides of Oregon and Washington. Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, for example, split off the Pambrun line of reds made from Bordeaux-origin grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley. We tried the Pambrun 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) and the 2018 Chrysologue blend ($70), pricey but not overpriced for premium wines from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA. Both are complex reds showing an array of black and blue fruit aromas and flavors.
So, if you’re a wine lover who doesn’t put Pinot Noir at the top of your favorite lists, don’t worry. The Willamette has a lot more to offer. And you also may discover a scintillating Pinot Noir or two that opens new vistas for you.
Wine Words: A correction to Charmat
Well, here’s a wine word I hoped never to have to use. But I’m guilty of giving my readers incorrect information in the Summer 2023 issue. The retired lead winemaker for Domaine Ste. Michelle’s sparklers, Rick Casqueiro, was kind enough to take the time to write in to set me straight. Here’s what he wrote:
“The Charmat Process does not involve injecting CO2 gas into still wine in a pressurized tank.“Instead, a still wine with an alcohol content of less than 11% is pumped into a stainless steel tank capable of withstanding 100 psi; sugar is added to the wine creating a residual sugar concentration of approximately 2.4% residual sugar content; a champagne yeast culture (saccharomyces bayanus) is also added the wine and the stainless steel tank is then sealed.
“Secondary fermentation begins with the yeast consuming the sugar and producing carbon dioxide gas and ethyl alcohol. Because the tank is sealed and can withstand pressure, the carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine, which creates the bubbles. Final secondary fermentation can take between 16 weeks to 60 weeks. Charmat sparkling wine can exhibit yeast aromas and toastiness flavors, subject to the amount to time the sparkling wine is left in contact with the yeast lees.”