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The Oregon Trail

Pinot Gris was pioneered in Oregon in 1970 and is now one of the region's most successful white varietals, as Stephen Brook discovers
  • The Oregonians concede that their state is not an ideal hunting ground for fine Chardonnay.
  • Most attribute the principal responsibility to clonal selection.
  • The goal in Oregon seems to be a full-bodied but not heavy white, fruitier and less marked by oak than the average Chardonnay.
  • Pinot Noir will remain Oregon’s crowning glory, but climatic uncertainties will keep its successes irregular.

Véronique Drouhin, who is responsible for some of Oregon’s most outstanding Pinot Noirs, has admitted to one major frustration: the difficulty of making equally fine Chardonnay in the same region. Her perplexity is widely shared. Although there are delicious Chardonnays to be found from wineries such as Silvan Ridge, not to mention a fine 1996 from Domaine Drouhin itself, the Oregonians concede that their state is not an ideal hunting ground for fine Chardonnay.

Part of the explanation may be climatic, but most attribute the principal responsibility to clonal selection. For years the principal Chardonnay clone was the 108, which is widely planted in California. But what works in California does not, as Oregon’s growers have painfully discovered, work further north. Clone 108 is a late ripener, and in tricky vintages, which are not lacking in rain-drenched Oregon, it may not ripen properly at all. Chardonnay, says Bob Stuart, winemaker at Erath, yields boring wines of high acidity. And what happens, I asked, if you age them? ‘Then you get boring old wines with high acidity.’

However, in recent years Dijon clones, which are better adapted to the vagaries of the Oregon climate, have been planted, and it is already clear that these clones will give much better wines than the maligned 108.

White wine enthusiasts, however, need not despair. You can find Chardonnays everywhere these days, and Oregonians have stumbled on the surprising discovery that Pinot Gris is capable of producing delicious wines in their home state. David Lett at Eyrie pioneered the variety in 1970, but trod a solitary path until 1983 and 1984, when he was joined by the Ponzi and Adelsheim wineries. By 1990 Pinot Gris from Oregon was a recognised success and today almost everyone in the state has a version on the list. It seems to do particularly well in the Willamette Valley, and is less exciting, and less frequently planted, further south in the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys.

I find it hard to define the character of Pinot Gris. It is not a strongly aromatic variety, yet it can often achieve the opulence of its Alsatian stablemate, Gewurztraminer. With high yields and cold fermentation, however, it can be downgraded into one of the world’s most characterless whites: north Italian Pinot Grigio, a crisp but profoundly bland wine for the undemanding drinker.

Few Oregon winemakers aim for this model of Pinot Gris, but equally few aim for the opposite extreme of the full organ blast of, say, the wines from Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. The goal in Oregon seems to be a full-bodied but not heavy white, fruitier and less marked by oak than the average Chardonnay. The best examples, of which there are many, combine freshness of aroma with a depth of fruit wrapped in a creamy texture: in short, a most satisfying glass of wine, with or without food.

The runaway success of the varietal in the 1990s has produced a few headaches for winemakers. Bob Stuart of Erath explains: ‘Today Pinot Gris grapes cost us more than Pinot Noir, but there’s no way we can charge more than $15 for a bottle, whereas a good Pinot Noir will fetch considerably more.’ Within Oregon, Pinot Gris, at between $10 and $15 per bottle, clearly represents good value, but whether this price band will be maintained is questionable. The prestigious Archery Summit winery has bent the rules slightly by producing a costly proprietorial blend called Vireton, which is predominantly Pinot Gris but not sold as a varietal.

Pinot Gris presents technical problems too. Sam Tannahill, the winemaker at Archery Summit, says that Pinot Gris is notorious for its unwillingness to complete fermentation. Consequently, sweetish Pinot Gris is as common in Oregon as it is in Alsace. Many wineries have made a virtue of necessity by claiming that an off-dry style suits their clientele, and perhaps that is so. Moreover, the fuller-bodied examples of Pinot Gris can easily absorb a few grams of residual sugar without the wine tasting excessively sweet or cloying.

However, while most Oregon Pinot Gris have more overt fruitiness than their Alsatian counterparts, the latter tend to have more body. Thus, when it comes to my personal taste, I find that off-dry Pinot Gris from Oregon – such as the popular version from Elk Cove – can be cloying. Sometimes, as in the case of Rex Hill’s 1996 Pinot Gris, the wine can taste sweet without containing residual sugar.

Copybook Pinot Gris is now being produced by the King Estate in the Willamette Valley. Oregon was, until recently, a gathering of small-scale artisanal wineries, but in recent years some big operators have moved in, and none flaunts its resources more than King Estate. Floated on an ocean of family fortunes derived from aeronautical and communications businesses, the winery is lavish and well-equipped. The Kings’ swagger attracted some initial hostility, but their wines have proved to be excellent, especially their Pinot Gris.

Some years ago wineries often treated Pinot Gris as a Chardonnay-substitute, and accordingly barrel-fermented the variety and in general coated it in oak – in much the same way as a Viennese instinctively lavishes whipped cream on a Sachertorte. But by the time the Kings were set up, most offending wineries, such as Rex Hill, had learnt the error of their ways. Their Pinot Gris is fermented in tank, does not undergo malolactic fermentation, and stays on the fine lees for six months; a small quantity is aged in older barriques for a couple of months. The Reserve is simply a selection of the best lots, and it is an outstanding wine at a sensible price.

Oak Knoll, an artisanal winery once better known for its fruit wines than its grape-based wines, manages to make delicious Pinot Gris in a more rough and ready manner. Pacific Northwest wineries are well stocked with steel drums which originally contained Coca Cola syrup; the drums were sold off at rock-bottom prices and are now used for a variety of purposes. At Oak Knoll they ferment Pinot Gris in them, but also employ conventional steel tanks. The wine remains on the lees for six months and never sees wood; nor does it undergo malolactic fermentation. The regular bottling is

a touch raw and has high acidity, but the Reserve, with its smell of sage and its rich, spicy flavours, is a wine of real character.

Other examples of Pinot Gris in a fresh, zippy style include those from Erath, where the vinification resembles that at King, though a small proportion of the wine is fermented in older barrels. At Ponzi, a winery offering a pedigree with the varietal, the style is very lean and crisp, dry and elegant. Flynn, a large winery producing inexpensive and straightforward varietals, makes a simple but attractive Pinot Gris, distinctly superior to another bargain-basement version from Henry Estate in the Umpqua Valley.

A more overtly Alsatian style is produced by Silvan Ridge – the upmarket range of the once highly commercial Hinman Winery. Here the Pinot Gris does go through malolactic fermentation, which is why the wine has breadth and opulence, though at the expense of palate-tingling crispness. The former winemaker there, Joe Dobbes, didn’t mind botrytis on his grapes, and vintages such as 1994 are distinctly honeyed. With Dobbes’ replacement in 1996 by the more austere Michael McNeill, the style has become more muted, but the wine remains rich and well balanced. Another full-bodied example comes from Willamette Valley Vineyards, and well-established wineries such as Adelsheim, Eyrie and Argyle have fine reputations for their Pinot Gris.

You are unlikely to encounter it outside Oregon itself, but Pinot Blanc also has a future here. Amity specialises in the variety, but the wines are curiously herbaceous and aggressive, utterly different from the plump style one is accustomed to from Alsace or Germany. Adelsheim, WillaKenzie and Erath are leading producers. I preferred the 1996 from Erath, a deliciously ripe and forthright wine. Rex Hill also plans to expand its production of Pinot Blanc.

Riesling and Gewürztraminer can flourish in Oregon, but economic constraints come into play. No winery can charge high prices for these unfashionable wines, except in late-harvest manifestations, so they tend to be made in an unashamedly commercial style, with a dollop of residual sugar. However, when vinified in a drier style, as at Amity, Riesling can approach the petrolly Alsatian style, which I suspect appeals more to European than to American palates.

Pinot Noir will remain Oregon’s crowning glory, but climatic uncertainties will keep its successes irregular. Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc will survive the Oregon climate more steadily and should continue to offer delicious wines of growing distinction.

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