The success story in Oregon has been, and continues to be, the exceptional pinot noirs.
Pinot noir wines from almost anywhere have shown impressive – some might say relentless – sales growth for the past six or seven years. Although consumer interest was sparked by the movie “Sideways,” the persistent success of this particular variety has more to do with consumer tastes that are evolving.
To put it plainly, more and more wine drinkers are looking for wines that are more elegant, that keep the alcohol levels in the 14 percent (or lower) range, and that do not derive their flavors from super-ripe fruit and expensive barrels.
Oregon offers a treasure trove of such wines and, surprisingly, they reach far beyond just pinot noir. Many of these wines are produced in limited quantities, but that is true of almost all of the state’s wine production. You may not find every bottle mentioned in this column, but the intent is to get you excited to experiment. See what your local wine shop has to offer, and I think you’ll enjoy exploring some of the more unusual wines from our neighbor to the south.
Trisaetum is quickly becoming my go-to Oregon riesling producer. Across the board, Oregon rieslings tend to be light and elegant, deliciously aromatic, and peppered with flowers and fruits. Trisaetum makes several vineyard-designated rieslings. The Lassa is a late harvest wine that comes from a 40-year-old vineyard; the Pashey is off-dry; Josahn (the newest) is cellar worthy, and the estate bottling – the most widely available – perfectly expresses the mix of flowers, fruits and minerality that makes all these wines special.
Look for the Trisaetum 2009 Estate Riesling ($24) – an enticing mix of flowers, fruits and stone. The lively flavors include streaks of lemon, lime, nectarine and apricot, accented with citrus rind and wet rock, honey and lemon tea.
Other excellent Oregon rieslings are made by Amity, Anam Cara, Argyle, Brandborg, Chehalem, Coeur de Terre, Daedalus, David Hill, Elk Cove, Foris, Kings Ridge, Lemelson, Ponzi, Spindrift and Viento.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, set in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley, farms grenache, marsanne, roussanne, syrah and viognier biodynamically. These are all distinctive, balanced wines with deep colors, ripe tannins and complex, earthy flavors.
Look for the Cowhorn 2009 Viognier ($30) – extraordinarily aromatic, loaded with luscious lemon, pineapple, orange and pear fruit flavors.
Tempranillo is catching on here in Washington, but it was an Oregon winery, Abacela, that pioneered the planting of the Spanish grape here in the Northwest. Along with estate-grown albariño, malbec, syrah, viognier and some Portuguese varieties, Abacela makes several different versions of tempranillo. The first vines went into the ground at this Umpqua valley winery in 1995, and have matured nicely.
Look for the Abacela 2007 Estate Tempranillo ($35) – scented with rose petals, pomegranate, sour cherry, hints of cumin and nutmeg, this expressive and elegant wine hits the palate and just keeps on going. The tannins are beautifully polished, and this lovely wine should improve for up to a decade.
Another fine Oregon tempranillo is made by David Hill.
Sineann’s Peter Rosback sources grapes from Washington, California and New Zealand as well as Oregon, but his unique Oregon zinfandel is a good starting point for exploring the wide-ranging Sineann portfolio. It’s sourced from a vineyard named The Pines, located in the Oregon slice of the vast Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area. The original planting dates from the late 1800s.
Look for Sineann’s 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel ($36) – low-yield, old vine fruit sets lush scents of chocolate, plum, cherry and baking spices against ripe fruit flavors of berry, cherry and plum.
More Unusual Oregon Reds
The Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA holds many of the region’s best vineyards, rising from the dry riverbed known as the Rocks up into the Blue Mountain foothills just west of Milton-Freewater. Though the Washington side of the valley is better known, the vineyards and wineries that farm in Oregon exclusively are proving more experimental. At Watermill, along with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and viognier, you’ll find estate-grown bottlings of cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot – all 100 percent varietal.
Watermill’s Estate Petit Verdot is one of the smoothest and most deeply concentrated I’ve tasted from anywhere in the country. It’s packed with rich boysenberry and blueberry fruit flavor, with a luscious finish of coffee, loam and licorice.
Look for Watermill’s 2007 Praying Mantis Syrah ($30) – spicy and full of verve, it opens with blueberries and other wild blue fruits, adds layers of coffee, milk chocolate, moist earth and lead pencil, then into a nicely-focused finish with the promise of a long cellar life ahead.
Other recommended syrahs from Oregon are Cliff Creek, Cowhorn, Folin Cellars, Francis Tannahill, Griffin Creek, Melrose, Nuthatch Cellars, Quady North and RoxyAnn.