Oregon has a deservedly solid reputation for Pinot Noir. It even does pretty well with Syrah in the southern and northeastern corners. But white wines? The scene gets iffier.
Every year I plow through hundreds of Oregon wines, unearthing one red gem after another. But I can't help feeling wistful after I taste a run of Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The good ones are few and far between.
Why? Here's my theory.
Over the years, wine drinkers had to take Oregon Pinot Noir seriously, because so few places in the world made wine from that grape that could seriously challenge Burgundy. Oregon could, and did. It developed a reputation for Pinot Noir worth paying attention to. Prices rose, giving the winemakers the wherewithal to make the wines even better.
White wines? Oregon vintners promoted Pinot Gris, which makes nice, fruity wines, pleasant to drink, but Pinot Gris worldwide does not have a reputation as a connoisseur's wine. That's fine for those of us who like to sip it and consider it a good-value wine, but it doesn't make a big reputation.
You can make pretty good Riesling and Pinot Blanc in Oregon, but it's hard to get the kind of prices that justify putting a lot of effort into those wines.
That brings us to Chardonnay. Oregon's cool-climate style produces lighter, less dramatic wines than what we see from California and other New World challengers to Burgundy, including Australia, New Zealand and even Washington. Additionally, Oregon had a lousy Chardonnay clone as its vineyard mainstay for years. Even with the introduction of better clones from Burgundy in the 1990s, Oregon's reputation for so-so Chardonnay kept prices low and made it difficult to justify a lot of effort.
Oregon was luckier with Pinot Noir. The two prevailing clones, known locally as Pommard and Wadenswil, made good wine from the start. Those producers who have extensively planted the new Burgundy clones of Pinot Noir still maintain their best patches of Pommard and Wadenswil. it's part of what makes Oregon Oregon.
Because Pinot Noir sells, the big influx of new wineries in the past 15 years focused almost exclusively on Pinot Noir. They may make a few cases of Chardonnay or Pinot Gris, but they're not giving them the same attention as Pinot Noir.
"The newcomers are not coming here to make white wine," says Harry Peterson-Nedry, who has kept the white wine torches burning brightly at his Chehalem Wines. "What they don't realize is that the white varietals carry with them just as much tradition as the Pinots."
The tradition may be as long, but it doesn't run as broad as that of Pinot Noir. I remember the early days of Oregon wine. In the 1970s and early 1980s, I enjoyed some Eyrie and Ponzi Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, Tualatin and Amity Riesling. But the Pinots? Much sexier.
Today, I admire the white wines of Chehalem, Ponzi and Argyle. I like Elk Cove, Eyrie and WillaKenzie Pinot Gris, and Chardonnays from Brick House, Domaine Serene and Adelsheim. What they share is a sense of grace and refinement to go along with real depth of flavor. If only more were out there trying as hard.