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Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a special place for Riesling

Long renowned for its Pinot Noir and with Chardonnay on the rise, Oregon's Willamette Valley has an international reputation for wine excellence, built on Burgundian varieties. In honour of International Riesling Day, US editor Clive Pursehouse makes the case that Riesling from the region is every bit as good.

The nearby Pacific Coast offers maritime influence that makes the Willamette Valley the growing region that it is. These conditions and the cool autumn weather, which is so well suited for Pinot Noir, make it a brilliant match for Riesling. Cool climate varieties, while not always mentioned in the same breath – as in the case of Pinot Noir and Riesling – tend to grow well together.

I believe that the top Rieslings from Oregon’s Willamette Valley are the very best of the variety on the West Coast. And that they are every bit as good as those found in New York’s Finger Lakes. While Riesling in the Willamette Valley might struggle for attention owing to the success of Pinot and the rising popularity of Oregon’s Chardonnay, it deserves to be part of the conversation about the top varieties in the Willamette Valley.

Cool to be cool climate

The best examples of Riesling from the Willamette Valley are not made in a lean, bone-dry style but rather lean into the variety’s complexities. The oldest vines, in particular, produce wines of incredible depth. Spice, floral fragrances and fruit complexity are the hallmarks of the Rieslings made at Brooks and Trisaetum, Riesling stalwarts of the Willamette Valley. Each makes multiple single-vineyard expressions that reflect a real commitment to the variety.

‘We have a greater diversity of Riesling in our cellar than any other variety,’ says Brooks head winemaker Claire Jarreau. ‘It’s by design, with 16 vineyards now representing almost every sub-AVA of the Willamette Valley. The Rieslings in our cellar express wildly differently throughout the valley but share common themes related to soil types, vine age and farming practices.’

‘Though we love creating stand-alone wines that decidedly show a sense of place, we also enjoy assembling harmonious blends that offer a broad perspective of the Willamette Valley through Riesling. These wines lead with layered and expressive fruit, high tension on the palate, and ample acidity that speak to our cool, windy, and at times marginal climate for growing Riesling.’

Among Oregon’s next wave, including names like Authentique and Martin Woods, winemakers are showing a renewed appreciation for Riesling, treating it with the same deference that they do Pinot Noir.

‘There are a lot of similarities in the growing conditions between Burgundy and Alsace,’ explains the French-born Hyland Estates winemaker Anne Sery. They share a couple of varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. So I don’t think it’s a leap at all to have Oregon growing top-quality Riesling.’

‘Riesling is a very late-ripening variety,’ Sery continues. ‘The fall weather in Oregon tends to be nice and dry. A lot of the Riesling planted here is grown on sites that tend to be cooler because of their elevation or exposure to wind.’

While Eyrie founder David Lett did not include Riesling in his original plantings when he broke ground in the region, many of those who followed in his footsteps did. This has resulted in some of the valley’s oldest vines being Riesling – most notably those at the McMinnville AVA site, Hyland Vineyard.

‘When Hyland was planted, they tested everything,’ Sery says, ‘including things like Syrah and Merlot. What remains is what ended up growing well; we have Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.’

‘What makes the Hyland Riesling special is that it is still own-rooted, and the vines are very healthy. The vines are 50 years old and don’t need much management, to be honest. Their yield is self-moderated, and we always get amazing acidity for the perfect level of sugar and flavour ripeness. It has been one of our flagship wines, along with the Pinot Noir, from the Coury clone since we started the brand in 2009, and it has been one of our main areas of focus.’

Winemaker Anne Sery walks the vines at Hyland Vineyard. Credit: Carolyn Wells Kramer

Special soils

In addition to the climate, winemaker Mark Vlossak believes soils make all the difference, particularly those where his Riesling is planted in the Eola-Amity Hills renowned vineyard Temperance Hill.

Vlossak founded St. Innocent Winery in the late 1980s. Some good fortune in the vineyard and an upbringing filled with wonderful German Rieslings led to his wholly unique Willamette Valley bottling, made in a Kabinett halbtrocken style.

His Riesling block at Temperance Hill sits at the very top, perhaps the highest in all of the Eola-Amity appellation. It’s a bit of an anomaly given the sub-region’s incredible reputation for Pinot Noir and, more and more, Chardonnay. ‘I had taken the block over from Rob Stuart, who was making sparkling wine for his Big Fire label. They were own-rooted Pinot Noir vines and eventually died from phylloxera.’

‘When I told Dai Crisp (the Temperance Hill vineyard manager) that I wanted to replant the block to Riesling, he looked at me like I had two heads,’ Vlossak recalls. Crisp was concerned that Vlossak would pick the fruit too late but relented when he told him he aimed to create a Kabinett-style Riesling.

‘I used two different clones, and I couldn’t get them all at once, so the block was planted over two years, and now it’s on its eighth or ninth leaf (fifth or sixth harvest), says Vlossak. ‘The soils were so poor and shallow that we lost a bunch of the vines, initially, but it had this blue silicate material in the rock, and that made me think of the blue slate soils in the Mosel.

‘I honestly can’t believe the wine is as good as it is,’ Vlossak continues. ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to make a Riesling like this for 20 years. It’s got diesel notes and classic secondary characteristics. There is so much complexity, and it’s only 10.5% alcohol. It’s honestly better than I imagined it would be.’

Claire Jarreau agrees that the Willamette Valley’s soils are special for Riesling. ‘With the diversity of soil types in the Willamette Valley – volcanic basalts, marine sediments and glacial deposits – we feel both the pleasure and responsibility to showcase the distinctiveness of our region through single-vineyard wines. This is true for us with both Pinot Noir and Riesling.’

The moss-covered Riesling vines at Hyland Vineyard, planted in the 1970s Credit: Clive Pursehouse

A selection of 10 Oregon Rieslings

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