On day two of Oregon Pinot Camp our OPC school bus dropped us off at Van Duzer Winery for a seminar and tasting of Oregon’s cool climate white wines. Van Duzer Winery is a family owned winery which is perfectly situated in the foothills of the Van Duzer corridor.
This natural break in Oregon’s Coastal Range straddles the western side of the Willamette Valley and permits cool maritime air from the Pacific Ocean to flow eastward into the Willamette Valley. The influx of cool air helps moderate and mitigate the summer heat and higher temperatures throughout the growing season.
Seated in the Van Duzer barrel room we met a panel of Oregon winemakers who led us through a comparative tasting and history of cool climate white wines from Oregon.
Facing us and from left to right were:
Harry Peterson-Nedry Chehalem
Josh Bergstrom Bergstrom Wines
Rob Stuart R. Stuart & Co.
David Paige Adelsheim Vineyard
Key on the agenda was the question of defining an “Oregon Style” of white wine. While each vineyard site and every winemaker will impart different characteristics to a finished wine, the Oregon white wines of today seem to overwhelmingly showcase New world fruit characteristics coupled with Old World structure and acidity. In terms of a winemaking, different approaches are employed to produce the following two styles of wine:
Fruit Forward Styles:
Objective: To showcase fruit character and characteristics of the vineyard site.
Winemaking Methods: Stainless steel fermentation at low temperatures, no malolactic fermentation, ageing in stainless steel or large neutral oak vessels.
Texturally Enhanced Styles:
Objective: To produce a wine with less overt fruit characteristics, but with richer flavors and a more generous mouthfeel (a.k.a. more textural)
Winemaking Methods: Barrel fermentation, lees contact, full or partial malolactic fermentation, barrel ageing.
Our first flight took us through a comparison/contrast of 6 different Chardonnays. This international varietal has experienced a tumultuous history here in Oregon. Back in the 1980s, chardonnay was the most widely planted white varietal in Oregon, accounting for 23% of the state’s planted acreage. At the time, some growers were grubbing up their pinot noir vines to plant more chardonnay.
However, the early chardonnay clones that were planted in the 1960-1970s were not optimal selections for Oregon. More specifically, the popular Selection 108 clone (U.C. Davis clone 4 & 5) yielded large late ripening clusters that only ripened successfully on a regular basis in southern Oregon. The resulting wines were often unevenly balanced in terms of both structure and flavor, yielding wines with either tart green apple acidity, or overripe tropical fruit flavors.
Fast forward to 1984 and 1988, when a series of chardonnay clones were introduced to Oregon from Burgundy. These new selections produced smaller clusters that bloomed and ripened 2-3 weeks earlier than the Davis clones. The grapes also exhibited more flavor and at lower sugar levels, which produced wines with more a subtle, integrated and balanced flavor profile than previously.
Flight #2 took us through a tasting through a selection Pinot Gris, which is Orgeon’s most widely planted varietal today. Back in 1966, David Lett (Eyrie Vineyards) was the first grower to commercially plant this genetic mutation of Pinot Noir in the US. The first release of this wine appeared in 1972, and since then the Orgeon wine industry has never looked back.
Ponzi Vineyards released their first Pinot Gris in 1983, and a year later Adelsheim Vineyards followed suite. Pinot Gris’ status in Oregon took another big leap in the early nineties when the King Estate began planting significant acreage of the variety as well as buying additional grapes from other growers to increase their production.
Our third and final flight was aptly described as a “fruit salad” tasting of lesser known white varietals planted in Oregon. Commercial winegrowing in the state began less than 50 years ago. With little experience and lacking centuries of grape growing trial and error like many regions in the Old World, Oregon winegrowers pretty much started from scratch.
Varietals like the ones shown above in our tasting were planted throughout the state. In addition, Muller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Semillon were also planted, with varying levels of success.
A Riesling Renaissance..
Of particular interest to me is the Riesling revival that is currently taking place in Oregon. Back in the mid 1980’s, this delicate varietal accounted for approximately 19% of the total planted acreage. In 2010 this number has fallen to paltry 3.8%. However the Rieslings that I tasted on my last trip to Oregon were most impressive. What’s more, growers and winemakers from Oregon seem really keen on working more with this varietal.
Stylistically, the examples I tasted seem to lie somewhere between the rapier like acidity (and austerity) of a Clare or Eden Valley Riesling, and the weight of one from Alsace. They are fresh and energetic whites that I could easily drink just about any night of the week, and with any dish that I choose to prepare. I am impressed by what I have tasted, and definitely plan to try more of these..
Next: Willakenzie Estate