Dunne on Wine

Dunne on wine: Oregon riesling: A turnaround developing?

In Oregon in the 1960s, we hunted and harvested mushrooms, blackberries, blueberries. Wine grapes? The thought never occurred to us. Oregon had a couple of vineyards way back then, but we didn’t know of them and likely wouldn’t have been particularly interested had we known.

As relative newlyweds, just starting our family, wine was but a honeymoon memory, and a bottle of Lancers at that, but with abalone.

When we returned to California in the 1970s, Oregon had five wineries and fewer than 40 acres in wine grapes. Today, Oregon has 463 wineries and 20,400 acres in vines.

We’ve become more than a little smitten with wine, California wine in particular, but we retain fond memories of our few years in Oregon and we’ve begun to ponder a trek north to see up close what the trade has to offer today.

A bunch of Oregon vintners got us to scratching the travel itch even more when they recently shipped us a mixed case of rieslings. Their intent was to show us that grape is at home in Oregon as it is in areas with which it is more closely affiliated – Washington state, Michigan, New York, Germany, Austria, Alsace.

In Oregon, however, riesling is something of an after-thought. Three decades ago, nearly one-fourth of Oregon’s vineyards were planted to riesling. Oregon’s customarily cool weather west of the Cascades is receptive to riesling, a grape that speaks most persuasively when it is cultivated in areas both warm enough to ripen and cool enough to retain its revitalizing acidity.

But those conditions also favor the pinot cousins, pinot noir and pinot gris, which at about that same time began to rise in esteem and popularity. In contrast, riesling long has struggled to gain acceptance in the American market. Riesling widely but erroneously is perceived as simple and cloying. In truth, historically it has stood tall among the handful of the planet’s noble grape varieties for its exceptional expression of place, its surprising complexity and its ageability.

Nevertheless, riesling, hobbled by misperceptions and the finicky tastes of fashion, now accounts for just 3 percent of Oregon’s vineyards. Pinot noir, on the other hand, is planted on 62 percent of the state’s vineyard acreage, with 13 percent given over to pinot gris.

On the other hand, several Oregon vintners scattered from one end of the state to the other are predicting that riesling will rebound, and they see signs that its renaissance already is underway.

One of the more experienced and vocal members of that community is Harry Peterson-Nedry, who in 1990 founded his winery, Chehalem Wines at Newberg. Peterson-Nedry makes 15,000 cases of wine a year, and his lineup runs to the usual Oregon suspects, but he’s especially keen on riesling, of which he customarily releases four interpretations each vintage.

He’s planted riesling in all three of his estate vineyards, and has set aside a “mother block” of all but one of the riesling clones available in the United States to find which ones adapt best to his terroir. He expects to soon start bottling rieslings by specific clone as well as by traditional appellation, vineyard and vintage.

Pinot gris may be the hot white wine in Oregon right now, but it won’t last as growers and vintners realize that chardonnay and riesling have more potential for the kind of statement that ultimately will put the state on the fine-wine map, he is confident.

Peterson-Nedry is encouraged by the new-generation Oregon winemakers, who he says are increasingly enthusiastic about the prospects of riesling. “We began a riesling winemakers group 10 years ago, with only about seven or eight serious wineries involved,” Peterson-Nedry recalled. “Today, our group has 35 or so wineries. There is definitely an excitement about riesling.”

Riesling reflects variations of vintage, place and touch perhaps more than any other grape. Thus, Oregon is gifted in three respects for rieslings of character. For one, the nature of the growing season can vary widely from one year to the next; a long, warm summer will produce rieslings ripe and lush, while a cool summer will produce more austere interpretations.

Secondly, the state’s soils, exposures and microclimates are remarkably diverse. The rich, red soils of the Dundee Hills in the north are volcanic in origin; the dirt of the Eola-Amity Hills in the north-central state is a mix of marine sedimentary rocks, alluvial deposits and volcanic basalt; and the Applegate Valley in the south consists typically of granite on stream terraces.

And third, while I have no empirical evidence to support this view, I’ve long sensed that Oregon’s wine trade attracts vintners more rebellious than conforming. That contrariness now seems poised to embrace riesling.

As I tasted my way through the case of Oregon rieslings, variations due to setting, weather and personality were clearly evident. To judge by these 12, Oregon’s rieslings come down more on the peach and apricot end of the flavor spectrum. Almost without exception, they were fresh and fragrant, their delicately floral aroma running mostly to jasmine.

They were forthrightly fruity, but dry more often than off-dry or semi-sweet. On paper, the Chehalem Wines 2011 Willamette Valley Three Vineyard Riesling ($24) had 2.5 percent residual sugar, but it tasted more dry than sweet thanks to its snappy acidity.

The Chehalem was one of several to fall in the riper, richer, lusher camp of Oregon rieslings, thanks to the roundness of its build and a beguiling complexity that included a few strands of fine-cut tobacco as well as the more traditional stone fruits, citrus and apple.

Other substantial rieslings were the imposing yet flexible Amity Vineyards 2010 Willamette Valley Wedding Dance Riesling ($17), the straight-forward and moderately sweet Brandborg Wines 2009 Umpqua Valley Riesling ($16), the spirited and somewhat exotic Alexana Winery 2012 Willamette Valley Dundee Hills Revana Vineyard Riesling ($28) – the most sumptuously textured sample in the box – and the Argyle Winery 2011 Eola-Amity Hills Riesling ($18).

Rieslings that hewed more to the traditional European standards of austerity, steeliness and tension were the stony Trisaetum 2012 Willamette Valley Ribbon Ridge Estate Riesling ($24); the delicate and slatey Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2012 Willamette Valley Riesling ($20); the brassy and surprisingly long-lasting Foris Vineyards Winery 2011 Rogue Valley Riesling ($13.50); the extremely aromatic, minerally and tangy Anne Amie Vineyards 2012 Yamhill-Carlton Estate Dry Riesling ($20); and the Brooks Wine 2010 Willamette Valley Ara Riesling ($25), the tartest wine in the selection, but with enough sweet peachy fruit to qualify as wine rather than flint.

Oregon rieslings aren’t exactly easy to find in the Sacramento region, though wine merchants such as Corti Brothers, Total Wine and BevMo stock some. On the other hand, virtually every Oregon winery will ship releases direct to consumers in California.

That’s one reason why the newly formed American Wine Consumer Coalition concluded that Oregon is the friendliest state in the nation for wine enthusiasts.