Great Wine-Making State Trumpets Wrong Variety

Times Wine Writer

Ever since my first trip to the Oregon wine country in 1976, I have realized that this state had great potential for making Pinot Noir. In the last few years, Oregon has trumpeted its great Pinot Noirs and others have echoed that praise.

But you don't drink potential, and for the life of me I cannot figure out what the excitement is over the Pinot Noirs of Oregon. Outside of a handful of producers who annually make good Pinot Noirs, a huge number of the Pinot Noirs made in Oregon in the last few years are rather blah, and certainly not worth the elevated prices being charged for them.

Misplaced Praise

It may be a heretical view: I feel Oregon is a great wine-making state, but at least four varieties now are much better than Pinot Noir here. I am supported in this view by a number of wine lovers who say they too have tasted Oregon Pinot Noirs and wonder what the fuss is all about, and who, as I do, feel Oregon's greatest achievement thus far is with other grapes.

Pinot Noir has a future here, but only glimpses of it have thus far been seen.

It's true that Oregon occasionally does make great Pinot Noir, but it is so infrequent and the producers who do so are so few that one gets the feeling that the emperor hasn't yet seen a tailor.

Proof of this keeps popping up all the time, but for some reason the word is never spoken by the nation's wine heralds. Quite the contrary, they keep arguing the greatness of Oregon Pinot Noir. Tasting simply doesn't confirm this.

--Three years ago, at a public tasting of 17 Oregon Pinot Noirs, I rated two wines excellent, two drinkable and the rest curiosities that were overpriced.

--A year ago at a Pinot Noir festival held in Oregon, nine wines were served blind. Three were from Oregon, three were French Burgundies (made from Pinot Noir grapes), three were from California. Tasters preferred three of the wines. Chagrined, the Oregonians admitted that the three wines most liked were from California.

--After evaluating more than 100 Pinot Noirs in a double-blind tasting last fall, I added up the scores and found that Oregon did poorest of any of the regions represented. (The best regions were Central Coast of California followed by the Carneros of Napa and Sonoma and Russian River of Sonoma County.)

Pioneers in Oregonian Viticulture

Still, when I taste such marvelous wines as the 1987 Eyrie Pinot Noir or 1987 Adelsheim, I realize that Oregon can make great Pinot Noir, but perhaps it takes time to understand the vines.

Three men must be credited with having pioneered this region for the variety. Eyrie's David Lett, the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon in 1966; David Adelsheim, a viticulture genius who has roots here dating to 1973, and Dick Erath, whose Knudsen-Erath Vineyards was founded in 1972, have the best track records for the variety here. In fact, virtually any of their Pinot Noirs is annually worth consideration.

I was a judge at the Oregon State Fair wine competition two weeks ago and, admittedly, didn't go into it with a totally objective outlook, so disappointing had been my previous contact with a wide range of Oregon Pinot Noirs. But my note sheet had quite a range of bizarre comments in this category, words like oxidized, tin can, sulfur dioxide, watery, oaky, leathery and earthy.

In short, I didn't much like the Pinot Noirs of Oregon.

Yet Knudsen-Erath's 1987 Reserve Leland Vineyard Pinot Noir won one of three gold medals given, showing that the judges liked the K-E style. (Eyrie and Adelsheim wines were not entered.)

Chardonnays Unimpressive

I didn't find much joy in the Chardonnay group, either. Most of the wines showed less fruit and more production technique. High-acid Chardonnay grapes seem to confound many of Oregon's wine makers.

When I mentioned these feelings to a wine merchant who knows Oregon wines well, he shrugged his shoulders and said: "The wine making simply isn't that experienced. I've been in cellars that are not being run very carefully." His other remarks weren't that kind.

And a colleague in the wine writing game commented, "There are a few guys who know how to make Pinot Noir and a whole bunch of amateurs trying to get 20 bucks for red table wine." Perhaps he was a little harsh, but the point was worth making.

In general, the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays appear to be "overworked," we all agreed. That is, they appear to have been handled too much, using techniques that knock down the natural fruit. And considering that prices for these wines are in the teens and above, I see no bargains here.

The curious thing--perhaps something the Oregonians don't want to acknowledge--is that they make sensational Riesling and Pinot Gris. The brilliance of these wines is evident when one tastes a range of them, as I did. But neither of these varieties is currently popular with Americans and neither commands much of a price.

Moreover, Oregon also makes excellent Cabernet Sauvignon (much to the shock of the judges) and very fine Gewurztraminer.

Rieslings Make a Good Showing

The main excitement of my experience at the Oregon State Fair was the fact that the Rieslings were so good. A fairly tough panel of seven judges awarded 19 medals to the 28 wines judged, including four gold medals and three silvers. It was an amazing showing. Normally about 30% of the wines in a competition get medals.

The gold-medal Rieslings included 1988 Veritas, 1988 Amity and 1988 Oak Knoll (all fairly dry wines) and a sweeter wine, 1987 Montinore Ultra Late Harvest. All are superb.

For those who like steely dry wines, I found even more excitement in an exceptional 1988 Veritas Dry Riesling, which is a marvelous rendering of Riesling that makes it taste a bit like Chablis. A great wine, but one that got only a bronze medal despite my impassioned plea.

The other gold medal Pinot Noirs were 1987 Broadley Vineyards Reserve and 1987 Elk Cove Dundee Hills.

Yet I found more intriguing the three silver medal-winning Cabernets from a state that supposedly can't ripen this variety. The 1987 Cabernets from Hillcrest, St. Josef's Weinkeller and Valley View were marvelous.

The Underrated Pinot Gris

During my short trip to Salem for the wine competition, it was clear that the folks here are proud of their wines, and frequently I was served a Pinot Gris as an aperitif or to go with a seafood dish. I was told it was a "change of pace" wine, something to show the fruit of Oregon vineyards.

After Riesling, this was the most dramatic find. Pinot Gris is a most fascinating grape variety, a true off-shoot variety of Pinot Noir that is a world traveler in terms of international acceptance.

Pinot Gris, a grape that yields a wine slightly spicier and smokier than Riesling, is also planted in Italy (where it's called Pinot Grigio), in Germany (as Rulander) and in the Alsace (occasionally called Tokay d'Alsace).

Oregon does brilliantly with this variety, and of the Pinot Gris I have tasted from Oregon, most are better than any Rulander or Pinot Grigio I have ever tasted, and certainly on a par with the best of Alsace. And yet prices are well under $10 for these under-rated wines.

I first tasted a Pinot Gris from Eyrie, a decade ago, and David Lett called it "the perfect salmon wine." On my recent trip, wines from Yamhill, Elk Cove and Adelsheim were exciting examples of the breed, and at a dinner one evening someone poured a delightful Pinot Gris from Ponzi Vineyards, and that recalled Lett's comments of a decade earlier: "the perfect wine for salmon."

Small Pressings

Pinot Gris is just getting started in Oregon, however, so finding a bottle may be a chore. Last year, only 101 tons of the grape were crushed in Oregon, compared with 1,465 tons of Riesling, 1,498 tons of Pinot Noir and 1,228 tons of Chardonnay.

By my earlier comments on the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it may be assumed I was not impressed by the wines of Oregon. Quite the contrary, a tremendous percentage of the Oregon wines are truly exciting, and it was clear that great grapes can be grown here.

That is evident from the fact that Laurent-Perrier and Joseph Drouhin, two major French wine firms, have bought land here. And it's evident from the work of a few wineries who consistently do exciting things with Pinot Noir, the state's claim to fame.

The fact that I am as yet unimpressed with the huge majority of overpriced Pinot Noirs doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for the potential of the variety here, nor does it detract from my appreciation of the few who do a great job.

But I am disappointed that in the rush to promote the "great Pinot Noirs," Oregonians have ignored their greatest successes, Riesling and Pinot Gris, which are, in my view, far more exciting.

Wine of the Week: The 1988 Field Stone Rose of Petite Sirah ($7)--this stuff is absolutely yummy. Loaded with strawberry aromas and cherry tastes, this wine is off-dry (1.3% residual sugar) and has a slight petillance to make it taste a bit like Champagne. But the aftertaste is long and complex. Even if you don't like wine, try this one.

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