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The Wine Press: Oregon understands the complex language of wine

Vines spill down toward the Willamette Valley at Amity Vineyards in Amity, Ore. Oregon is home to some 500 wineries with a growing wine tourism industry and a reputation for good pinot noir.
Vines spill down toward the Willamette Valley at Amity Vineyards in Amity, Ore. Oregon is home to some 500 wineries with a growing wine tourism industry and a reputation for good pinot noir. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Oregon means pinot noir. For most wine lovers, it is that single-minded focus that has been the state’s greatest strength.

But some Oregon winemakers think that’s a weakness, and they’re pushing to draw attention to other grapes like pinot gris, chardonnay and, in the southern part of the state, Rhone varieties, Spanish varieties and even Bordeaux grapes.

Will they succeed?

Not too many years ago, riesling was supposed to be the fair-haired child. While there are many competent rieslings in the state, few measure up to the best in New York’s Finger Lakes region or even Michigan, and there are few that are as interesting as those made in neighboring Washington, where Poet’s Leap and Eroica have set the standards for the region.

Still, many are pleasing (such as Amity, Bethel Heights, Brooks, Chehalem, Elk Cove, Lemelson and Penner-Ash), while Trisaetum has honed in on the grape, and I would gladly drink any of their 10 different riesling bottlings; they’re all excellent.

Pinot noir’s greatest proponent, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, was nearly as excited by the prospects of pinot gris; from the mid 1960s onward, he championed the goal of moving the state beyond only one grape. To Lett, pinot gris was the answer. Eyrie pinot gris are legendary for their ability to age to a shocking degree. I recently had the 1977, 1983 and the 1991; each was very good.

Lots of wineries have heeded Lett’s call: Adelsheim, Amity, Boedecker, Carabella, Elk Cove, Eyrie, Lange, Ponzi, and Raptor Ridge (they also offer a nice grüner veltliner). Wineries like Amity and Ayres (from a KC hometown boy) have latched onto pinot blanc.

In the early days, chardonnay was planted alongside pinot noir in hopes that, as in Burgundy, both grapes would excel. But Oregon chardonnay wasn’t as interesting as the pinot noir; in fact, it wasn’t very good at all. It was the wrong clone of chardonnay, although it took years to figure that out, and even longer to import other clones — the so-called Dijon clones (from Burgundy’s University of Dijon research vineyards) — into the state.

The old Oregon chardonnays tasted like apple juice aged in toasted barrels. At best. The new grapes are more at home in the Pacific climate; their early ripening habits develop deep flavors and aromas, even if fall rains and cold come along to disrupt the harvest.

Wineries throughout the Willamette Valley are fashioning excellence from the new clones. At the pinnacle are chardonnays from Brickhouse, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Ponzi (their reserve is gorgeous) and Walter Scott. But just as deserving of your attention are chardonnays from Cooper Mountain, Antica Terra, Brittan, Eyrie, Hyland, Lange, Solena, Stoller Family and Winderlea.

There are of course options beyond white wines. Antica Terra crafts amazing rosés. That’s no oxymoron; these are intense, deep, complex, head-scratching wines. They aren’t like any others. But that’s the whole point of creating these new regions, and of redefining those that have already placed their stamp on the winepress.

Wine is wine, some will say. But wine is a bit like typeface: They’re all words that come in different shapes, sizes, styles and characters. There are many different fonts out there because each communicates something slightly different. Oregon is exploring that; and by doing so it’s adding to our language of wine.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based master sommelier and master of wine. He is also a spirits expert and educator. Reach him at winedog@att.net.

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