Most wine drinkers know Oregon for its distinctive and often excellent Pinot Noirs. But what about its other wines, which represent nearly half of the state’s wine production?
I received an e-mail recently from a group of wineries banding together to promote Pinot Gris, the most widely planted white grape variety in Oregon, accounting for about 15 percent of the state’s total production. The proponents pointed out, correctly, that Pinot Gris is on the rise as a varietal from many regions around the world, that Oregon has some history with this varietal and that it’s a fruit-forward, food-friendly wine.
One thing they didn't mention is that by far the most popular wines based on the Pinot Gris grape elsewhere travel under the name Pinot Grigio, whether they come from Italy, Australia or California. As popular as those wines may be, sommeliers and serious wine drinkers look down on them. Just the other day, a parodist on Twitter who sends up haughty sommelier attitudes wrote, "I always taste each bottle before it's poured. Unless you order Pinot Grigio. That's all you."
Some of the producers who are in this group make good to very good examples of this varietal, among them Oak Knoll, Terrapin, Yamhill Valley Vineyards and David Hill. Some of the biggest names in the state, however, are not part of this group, including King Estate, A to Z, Erath and Willamette Valley Vineyards. Nor are the state’s elite PG producers, in my view a list that would include Chehalem, Adelsheim and Eyrie.
The e-mail’s list of various points on which the members agree included an admonition to stop the Alsace and Italy comparisons. "We'll be talking only Oregon's style," it read. "To use comparisons isn't doing the variety in Oregon any favors." I am not so sure about that. It always helps to place an unfamiliar wine's style in reference to well-known touch points, not for quality but for qualities.
Looking over my existing tasting notes, I'd say the PG group members tend to focus on a light, fresh, crisp style. That may be why their announcement listed "higher acidity, lower alcohol than CA or WA versions, bracing minerality and purity of fruit" as assets of Oregon Pinot Gris. Hmm, that sounds an awful lot like a description of the kind of wine sold as Pinot Grigio.
Some of the best Oregon Pinot Gris in my tastings have more density and depth, such as those from, well, Chehalem, Adelsheim and Eyrie. Harry Peterson-Nedry at Chehalem, in fact, comes right out and says he models his Pinot Gris on Alsace examples, and his wines rise to the top more often than not.
The late David Lett of Eyrie introduced me to Oregon Pinot Gris. The first time I visited him, in 1978, he pressed a bottle of his PG into my hands and told me it carried a curse. "You must drink this with salmon to avoid the curse," he said, whiskers atwitch. Lett was among those who believed in this grape variety from the beginning. He was unimpressed with Oregon Chardonnay at that point.
I enjoyed his Pinot Gris, with salmon. I’ve also liked richer styles of Oregon Pinot Gris with other types of fish, with no ill effects from any curses. The bright, crisp style often does well with oysters, too, and the state’s amazing razor clams. On the other hand, I can seldom find enough depth of flavor or layers of complexity to rate Oregon Pinot Gris 90 points or higher ("outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale), although the good ones consistently get pretty close.
Beyond the perception that only Pinot Noir matters in Oregon, this effort for Pinot Gris may be competing against other wines, especially Chardonnay. For my money, Chardonnay is the most exciting white wine variety in Oregon right now. The popularization of Dijon clones and winemakers getting higher on the learning curve have produced some head-turners.
Look, I like Pinot Gris. When the price is modest, say $12 to $15, the light and easy style is worth it. Beyond that level, I expect more. If others agree, that’s something Oregon has to deal with, like it or not.
Michael Bonanno — CT — January 10, 2012 3:32pm ET
Matt Ploetz — Milwaukee, WI — January 10, 2012 7:03pm ET
David Lerer — Indialantic, FLorida, USA — January 10, 2012 8:17pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 10, 2012 8:29pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 10, 2012 8:30pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 10, 2012 8:32pm ET
Sandy Hamilton — Vancouver, Canada — January 10, 2012 9:26pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 10, 2012 9:31pm ET
Ivan Campos — Ottawa, Canada — January 10, 2012 9:37pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — January 11, 2012 8:55am ET
Michael Haley — Eugene, OR — January 11, 2012 7:23pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 12, 2012 3:54am ET
Jo Diaz — Winsdor, CA 95492 — January 19, 2012 6:21pm ET
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