Tasting Wine: Superb whites from Oregon

Our neighbor to the north has become world famous for its pinot noir. Every year, wine pros and pinot noir-loving civilians flock to the Willamette Valley for the International Pinot Noir Conference, Pinot Camp and winery visits to check out the latest, greatest and potentially coveted pinot noirs made in Oregon. What a lot of unsuspecting folks realize is that Oregon, and the Willamette Valley in particular, not only makes superb pinot noir but also is home to many distinctive white wines.

Although chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape in Oregon, pinot gris is its flagship. It has been grown in the Willamette Valley since the 1960s, and now nearly everyone seems to have one in a bottle. Sometimes it is more akin to the leaner Italian-style pinot grigio, other times more flowery and spicy like Alsatian pinot gris. Most are not terribly expensive and those that are a little bit more pricey are often justified.

Pinot blanc, gewürztraminer, riesling and now grüner veltliner also do well in the Willamette as well as in parts of the Umpqua and Rogue valleys in western Oregon. While it is not as cold as in Germany, Alsace or Austria where the aforementioned grapes originate, the Willamette and parts of these other appellations have cool, maritime climates with a long growing season. The mineral content is unique, so don’t expect knockoffs of their European compatriots, but these varietals make lovely, food-friendly wines with a nice balance of fruit and terroir.

The Willamette Valley’s climate helps promote higher acidity, one reason why the chardonnay from here should not be ignored. There was a big push in the 1990s to move to Dijon clones, which has in turn produced richer, more complex chardonnays that are often much less expensive than what you’ll find from California.

Oregon’s white wine field is packed with lots of goodies, but here are three of my current favorites. If you can’t find them, just go to your favorite wine shop and ask for help as they can probably be ordered.

Methven Pinot Gris, 2005

This is a dead ringer for Alsatian pinot gris. It may not have as much going on as, say, a Domaine Weinbach, but for $15 a bottle there is plenty to enjoy here. Floral, with honeysuckle and apricot blossom aromas followed by luscious nectarine, tangerine fruit with tropical nuances, this wine goes equally well with spicy food as it does with Oregon’s noted salmon.

Suggested retail: $14.99

Daedulus Grüner Veltliner, Elton Vineyard, 2005

Aron Hess and his wife met in Burgundy and went to the Willamette Valley dreaming of making pinot noir. They are doing that, but I suspect this grüner veltliner might be what puts them on the map. Made from a single vineyard in the Eola Hills, this has grüner veltliner’s trademark arugula and white pepper notes, but it also has higher-toned fruit than many Austrian grüner. Light-bodied and dry, it’s wonderful with oysters, white fish dishes and triple cream cheeses.

Suggested retail: $17

Sokol-Blosser Evolution Number 9, NV

Now in its 11th edition, this is consistently one of my favorite white wines made in Oregon. A blend of nine grapes (müller-thurgau, white riesling, semillon, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, muscat canelli, chardonnay, pinot blanc, sylvaner), it is always lively, fresh and aromatic, and this rendition has a little extra umph.

Suggested retail: $16

Pamela S. Busch is the proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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