The Boston Phoenix
August 17 - 24, 2000


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Oregon trail

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 with chardonnay.

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 un-oaked white 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 Alsace, the French wine region to the northeast. Alsace is known mainly for its sublime rieslings, but it also excels with pinot gris, pinot blanc, and gewürztraminer. 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 well made.

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 $10.

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 acid than fruit. It wants the grill taste, especially mesquite, but it can tame teriyaki sauce, too.

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 veggie delights.

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 wine[a]

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