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Why So Few Really Good White Wines in Oregon?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 26, 2006 2:19pm ET

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.

Brad Coelho
New York City —  October 26, 2006 9:50pm ET
If Oregon were to look for a 'clearer' pastures in a more niche market to add to the Pinot flair, I think sparkling wines would make perfect sense. Argyle's success w/ their Blanc de Noirs Brut and growers utilizing the pinot plantings that aren't best suited to producing red wines of depth; seem tailor made for sparklers. If the chardonnay climate isn't as generous, I'm sure the acidity in those chardonnay grapes is perfectly suited for sparklers.I think this is an asset Oregon has underutilized. What do you think Harvey?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 27, 2006 12:20am ET
Trouble is, from what I have tasted Argyle is the ONLY sparkling wine producer to get outstanding ratings. Others have tried, but except for a few nice sparkling Muscats, nothing has been impressive.

I think Chardonnay has real possibilities in Oregon. As Chehalem proves every vintage, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris can get there too. It just takes dedication, which few other wineries seem to want to lavish on the white wines.
Robert Mathews
October 27, 2006 10:12am ET
I feel that Riesling shows some real promise in Oregon, specifically the Northern Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge, and Columbia Valley AVA's. I've had a few that I consider to be real gems (Anne Amie, Chateau Bianca).I agree, though, that the whites have been a bit under-emphasized, both in the winery cellars and in the marketplace. Oregon is still very young when it comes to viticulture, and I think this is all part of the growing pains an area goes through. As some of the white varietals show more promise I think they will start to fetch prices that allow producers to push them to the next level. For now, though, I'll search out the good ones and enjoy them for less than $15 retail.
Robert Mathews
October 27, 2006 10:20am ET
By the way, I just did a ratings search for Oregon whites for the the 2003-2005 vintages, scored 85 points and above. The search returned 70 wines. While this is not a great number compared to other regions, I'd say that puts plenty of white wines from Oregon in front of us to be considered "good" at least.
Steve Caldwell
Florence, KY —  October 27, 2006 10:39am ET
The INOX Chardonnay from Chehalem is really, really good. No oak anywhere; they make it in stainless. I've had a lot of fun introducing it to blind tastings. Answers are anywhere from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to "I don't know, but it's sure not Chardonnay."Harvey, have you tried the whites from Sineann? I probably ought to keep it a secret, but their Riesling, Pinot Gris, and especially the Gewurztraminer are exciting.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 27, 2006 4:21pm ET
Did you mean to say so few good wines, or so few good 'whites'? It seems to me that there is plenty of good pinot noir out there right now, so the title is a little perplexing, but I agree the options do drop off some after that.

The best Oregon pinot gris, while they may not have the complexity and minerality of Alsatian whites, have a well(acid)balanced fruit-driven creaminess that makes for pleasant sipping and good food compatibilty. The fruit has really been in demand and cropping levels have been higher than for pinot noir. I can't help but wonder what 2 tons/acre pinot gris might do in terms of creating a wine that people would stand up and take notice of. Chehalem, Bergstrom and Willakenzie have made some great ones.

The fact is gris (and the other whites)is a cash flow wine. Tank fermented, cold stabilized, filtered, bottled and out the door in 8-10 months, in time for the next summer's grilled salmon. The push is to keep it affordable and available while you are waiting for that pinot noir in $1000 french oak to come around.

That being said, Patty Green is leading a bit of a renaissance in sauvignon blanc up here, and dry riesling is getting more popular as well. It may just be a matter of time until we have some really high quality whites.

We Oregonians suck up most of the homegrown whites ourselves anyway, so keep those scores low!! ;)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 27, 2006 4:34pm ET
Charles, you're absolutely right that lower yields are at least one key to making Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling that can achieve something special. More attention to winemaking details couldn't hurt, either.

For now, the pleasant wines most wineries make from these varieties are nice at $10-12. But when they ask $15 and up for simple quaffers, I wonder if the value is there, especially when Washington seems to be able to do just as well with lighter-style whites at under $12.
Alton D Trawick
Sammamish, WA —  October 28, 2006 2:06pm ET
Harvey: Unrelated to Oregon whites, but a question about your Tasting Highlights review on Ken Wright Pinots. Absent from the list of vineyard designates was Savoya. It that because it was not among your 2004 flight of tastings or you were trying to be kind and show the ratings of his best for the vintage? Al
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 28, 2006 9:33pm ET
The Ken Wright 2004 Savoya was not among the samples he sent. The wines are not yet in the stores here, but I'll see Ken at a tasting in San Francisco Nov 6. We will get it sorted out.
William Fuller
Ft Lauderdale, FL —  November 9, 2006 9:38am ET
As I recall, one of the early Oregon wines to appear in the Wine Spectator top 100 wines included Tualatin Vineyards 1989 Rsv Chardonnay. This "shocked" a lot of Oregon winemakers since they were putting most of their energy into Pinot Noir an expected it to carry the industry. We worked very hard to grow and make good Chardonnay with some of the early clones like 109, Draper and others. To make "Great" Chardonnay in Oregon one has to spend energy and focus on it plus have a warm vineyard site. Most Oregon winemakers do not place Chardonnay high enough on their priority list, hence will not make exceptional wines.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 9, 2006 10:43am ET
Hi Bill. I remember well your white wines at Tualatin. In those early days, your Chardonnays and Rieslings were among those wines that convinced me that Oregon was worth paying attention to. Thanks for backing me up. All we need is more winemakers willing to devote as much time and energy on white wines, as you did. It can be done.

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