Wine: For a taste of Oregon, try exceptional pinot gris

I clearly remember sipping Eyrie Vineyards 1989 on my black futon couch, watching Wolf Blitzer report on the first Gulf War during a cold winter night in 1991. I was mesmerized and, no offense to Wolfie, but he had nothing to do with the pleasure at hand.

It was all in the glass.

Nearly 20 years later, Oregon pinot gris has become Oregon’s go-to white wine. There are several reasons for this. First, pinot gris — which makes world-class wines in France’s Alsace region — does not like too much heat, and Oregon’s cool climate suits it just fine. The early pioneers in the 1970s realized this pretty quickly.

Even though chardonnay became widespread throughout the state in the following decades, wine drinkers have become more educated and experimental. Oregon pinot gris is hardly obscure today, but good luck trying to find more than a token example of it in a wine store even 10 years ago.

With high acid, honeysuckle and an array of fruit characteristics, pinot gris wines from the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys are vibrant and balanced. And, they happen to go extremely well with salmon, which is big business on Oregon’s coastline.

Lastly, and very importantly, Oregon pinot gris provides a lot of value. Most hover around the $15 mark, and you don’t have to spend more than $20 to find a wine that can be food-friendly and complex. Have I ever had one that reaches the heights of Alsatian grand cru pinot gris? No, but I don’t want to spend that kind of money ($40) every time I drink wine.

There really are a lot of good Oregon pinot gris wines to be had, but if I had to pick my desert-island three, at least this week, these wines are the ones I would choose:

Foris pinot gris, 2008 (Rogue Valley, Ore.): While the Willamette Valley gets most of the props, the Rogue Valley on the California border has immense potential. Foris’ first vintage came in 1986, though its owners, the Gerber family, bought their land in 1971. Medium-bodied with notes of pear and spice, it’s clean and refreshing. Suggested retail: $14

Owen Roe pinot gris, Crawford-Beck Vineyard, 2009 (Willamette Valley, Ore.): Named after a 17th-century Irish patriot, or you could say nationalist, this is one of the top estates in Oregon. I wrote about a previous vintage of this wine before, and if I have to pinpoint my absolute favorite Oregon pinot gris, this is it. With a nod to Alsace, it has an abundance of floral aromatics, especially honeysuckle, with nectarines, tropical fruit and a searing finish. Suggested retail: $19.99

Elk Cove Pinot Gris, 2009 (Willamette Valley, Ore.): Elk Cove is one of the veteran producers in Oregon, yet it’s often overlooked. In the past, it has had problems with consistency, though the current wines are extremely good and the pinot gris has always been notable. Though it has a touch of residual sugar, it’s superbly balanced with floral-tinted citrus and tropical fruit. Suggested retail: $19.99

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

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