If you play word association with a wine enthusiast and throw out the word “Oregon,” chances are pretty high that the response will be “Pinot Noir.”
For good reason. In the 1960s, a handful of young vintners moved to the state, all passionate about wine and eager to be a part of something new. Within a decade, those who believed Oregon’s climate would be too cold and wet for grapes were proven wrong when a Pinot Noir from one of those trailblazers, David Lett, took home gold at the 1979 Wine Olympics in Paris.
Over the next 30 years, hundreds of winemakers set up shop in Oregon, eager to produce world-class Pinot Noir. Today, the state’s wine industry promotes itself with posters and other items that say “Drink Pinot, Think Oregon.”
But while Lett and other pioneers were focusing on Pinot Noir, a number of other vintners were giving it a go with Riesling. Indeed, about a quarter of Oregon’s vineyards were planted to Riesling in 1980. As Pinot Noir acreage exploded, however, Riesling became overshadowed.
Today, though, Oregon Riesling is experiencing a resurgence. And it’s better than ever.
Many consumers recoil at the sight of Riesling, as it’s still associated with the sweet, simple German wines of yesteryear, like Blue Nun. Wines like these are still produced and they’ll always have fans. But they do a disservice to true Riesling. It’s not by accident that Riesling has long been known as the “noblest of the noble grapes.”
For one thing, Riesling is honest.
Because most Riesling is fermented in stainless steel, it isn’t manipulated through oak aging or other winemaking techniques. So it’s remarkably transparent and excels in capturing terroir, or a wine’s sense of place. As Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, once explained, “If you want to talk about terroir, talk about German Rieslings or Alsace Rieslings, where the wines are naked — there’s no makeup.”
Riesling is also quite versatile. Some of the world’s best Rieslings are syrupy and lusciously sweet, while others are bone dry. Most fall somewhere in between, and all are extremely fragrant. And thanks to its high acidity, Riesling is an extremely adaptable food wine.
Misconceptions still abound, but fortunately, consumers are starting to recognize that Riesling is a serious grape.
I recently tasted through a dozen Oregon Rieslings and was impressed with all them.
One bottle worth finding is Chehalem’s “Three Vineyard Riesling.” Marked by exotic citrus fruits, green apples, and chalk-like minerality, the wine is exceptionally vibrant. Other wines worth looking for include Amity Vineyards’ Wedding Dance Riesling, Penner-Ash’s Willamette Valley Riesling, and Elk Cove’s Estate Riesling. All are refreshing and delicious, offering delicate notes of citrus fruits and apples. These four wines do have quite a bit of residual sugar, but they almost taste dry because they’re balanced by bracing acidity.
Plus, they’re affordable. While these producers are known for their Pinot Noir — many of which cost upwards of $50 per bottle — these Rieslings can be found for right around $20.
Riesling might be Oregon’s best kept secret. So make sure you try some before the word gets out.
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named “Best Overall Wine Blog” at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.