Oregon has loosened up its regulations for varietal labels on wine, but before you get alarmed, it all makes perfect sense. The state Liquor Control Commission decided to amend its rules for certain grape varieties, the ones that are commonly used in blends, to put the wineries that make them on the same footing as wineries in all the other states.
Until this new ruling, Oregon required that any wine labeled with a grape variety must contain at least 90 percent wine made from that grape. The U.S. rule, which neighboring states such as California and Washington follow, only requires 75 percent.
Don't worry. Oregon vintners can't start blending out their Pinot Noirs with something else. The new rules apply to 18 grape varieties, which are commonly and traditionally blended with other varieties. The old rules already listed Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, as exceptions. The new rules add Rhône varieties, such as Grenache, Syrah, Durif, Marsanne and Roussanne, plus Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Tannat. That's it. Everything else must conform to a 90 percent rule, including Pinot Noir.
Before this, anyone who wanted to blend more than 10 percent Grenache into Syrah (or vice versa) had to come up with a fanciful name for the blend, or just call it "red." If you want to blend more that much Syrah into a Pinot Noir, though, you can't still call it Pinot Noir.
Another rule change involves American Viticultural Areas that straddle Oregon and "adjoining states." That basically refers to Washington's Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys, whose boundaries stretch into Oregon. The new rules allow Oregon wineries to label wines as Columbia Valley or Walla Walla and follow either the Washington or U.S. rules for that appellation.
In practice, that allows Oregon vintners to blend up to 15 percent wine from elsewhere. The Oregon rule is 5 percent. Also, Oregon vintners can no longer label their sparkling wines as "Champagne method" or "Methode Champenoise." But they can add water legally. The commisison repealed a previous regulation that prohibited added water but permitted adding sugar to fermenting must.
In point of fact, many Oregon vintners added water to their fermentations in high-alcohol years such as 2003 and 2006.
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