I love Oregon's beautiful wine country, and I love the wonderful culture that has sprung up there among producers, which is very innovative and ambitious in terms of quality, but refreshingly unpretentious in its bearing. And I have been madly in love with Riesling for two decades. So when I learned last year that my favorite white grape is enjoying a renaissance in what may be my favorite American region, it was like hearing that a romance had bloomed between a couple of dear friends.
At the risk of overworking the simile, what we're dealing with here is actually akin to a romance between a couple of old friends who've just discovered a new spark. Riesling is not new to Oregon. Although it only accounted for about three or four percent of the state's planted acreage in 2005, Riesling accounted for nearly a quarter of Oregon's wine production in the early 1980s.
In retrospect, however, it isn't terribly surprising that Oregon and Riesling didn't hit it off in their initial encounter. The state's fledgling wine industry relied on Riesling for cash-flow purposes, since it could be sold within months of being harvested, unlike Pinot Noir. Almost all Rieslings were finished sweet and regarded as relatively unserious "transition wines," useful for seducing those unaccustomed to more "serious" wines.
Although Riesling is a supremely noble grape, it is fully capable of serving this relatively ignoble purpose. And when growers employ it for this purpose, they need not trouble themselves about restricting crop yields or planting it in the perfect site, because sugar can absolve almost any sin on a novice's palate. Most Oregon consumers in the early 1980s were novices, just as virtually all producers were running start-up operations, so this arrangement worked just fine in the short term. But it was a marriage of convenience, and we know what happens to those over time.
Sure enough, Oregon producers fell out of love with Riesling in the years that followed. As their consumer base expanded and matured, they didn't need Riesling as a tasting room pacifier for newbies. And as they shored up their financial standing, they didn't need it as a cash cow. Their Pinot vines were maturing, the resulting wines were gaining accolades, and new vine clones from France were showing great promise for the future of both Pinot and Chardonnay. On the white side, Chardonnay's top contender was clearly Pinot Gris rather than Riesling, which got ripped out or grafted over in many, many vineyards.
Riesling hit bottom in 2005, but is already on the rebound. At its nadir in 2005, Riesling was planted on only 524 acres in Oregon. But the total was up to 665 in 2006, and it reached 710 in 2007. Moreover, the past two years have seen 52 new plantings across the state, so there's reason to believe that there's something more substantial afoot than a planting spree being conducted by two or three isolated wackos.
Rather than an eccentric undertaking, a Riesling revival makes sense in Oregon. All of the world's great Rieslings come from places with relatively cool climates and, consequently, extended growing seasons. These are precisely what Oregon has to offer when one heads up into the Pacific Northwest from California, which is America's most important wine producing state (by a long shot), yet something of a failure with Riesling.
The state of Washington has also made a mark with Riesling, but it would be a mistake to regard the northwest as all being of one piece. Most Washington vineyards lie in the rain shadow on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains that dissect both states, whereas Oregon's vineyards lie predominantly on the western side. Oregon's vineyards are much more exposed to the effects of the Pacific Ocean, which moderates winter temperatures but also makes for cooler, wetter growing seasons.
Indicating that Oregon is "wetter" than eastern Washington isn't saying much, as eastern Washington is essentially high desert, and would be quite inhospitable to viticulture if not for the abundance of water for irrigation provided by the Columbia, Yakima and Snake Rivers. By comparison, most of Oregon's vineyards offer notably different growing conditions, with cooler temperatures and much more rainfall. Oregon's wetness can be overstated, as the majority of annual rainfall occurs between October and April, outside of the growing season in most years. Nevertheless, conditions are clearly different in Oregon, and it will probably take a couple of decades to learn which state has the edge in ability to produce high-end Riesling.
At this point, in light of the recent re-start, Oregon Riesling should probably be regarded as an essentially new thing, since its previous renditions are probably not representative of how good it can be when grown and crafted with the objective of creating a nuanced wine expressing the terroir of a particular site. That is precisely the objective of most producers now working with the grape, spearheaded by a technical group of vintners that has been meeting for several years to share ideas and results regarding Riesling.
Having stated the caveat that Oregon Riesling is a work in progress, we must still ask: Just how good is the stuff at this point? I was able to get a sense of that during a tasting that was kindly set up for me by the Oregon Wine Board in Portland a couple of months ago, and my reviews of the wines appear below. The results were not uniform, of course, but the overall impression lent by the wines was impressive. Things are likely to look even better soon, as the 2007 growing season was excellent, with more rain that was desirable for Pinot Noir, but an extended ripening period and some healthy botrytis that should produce great results for Riesling.
Wines listed in order of preference, with those receiving the same score appearing in alphabetical order:
Chehalem, Chehalem Mountains, Corral Creek Vineyard Riesling 2006, $24: This features subtle fruity and floral aromas, vivid flavors, excellent acidity, and an interesting minerality in the finish. Impressively detailed, yet also very well integrated, this is at once immediately delicious but also interestingly intricate. 90
Lemelson Vineyards, Willamette Valley, Dry Riesling 2006, $20: Admirable restraint marks this wine's aromas, which show subtle fruit, and yet the flavors are quite expressive and generous. Ripe acidity freshens the wine without making it seem overly tart, lifting the flavors and lending definition through a long, symmetrical finish. 89
Chehalem, Willamette Valley, Dry Riesling Reserve 2006, $21: Lovely floral and fruity aromatic notes get this wine off to a great start, and the flavors are just as pleasant and impressive, with excellent balance between fruit, subtle sweetness, and acidity. Mineral notes are faint but nevertheless apparent, and slight spritziness helps lift and freshen the finish. 88
Elk Cove, Willamette Valley, Estate Riesling 2006, $19: Very pure fruit is the calling card component of this wine, which is not particularly layered or mineral, but is so vivid and juicy that few could fail to enjoy it. The acidity is so well tuned to the character of the fruit that I found it difficult to decide whether to characterize the wine as faintly sweet or essentially dry, which is itself high praise for the winemaker's performance. 88
Amity, Willamette Valley, Riesling 2005, $17: A notable minerality distinguishes this wine, which shows fine fruit recalling ripe apples and just a hint of emerging bottle bouquet. Interesting interplay between sweet fruitiness and acidity marks both the midpalate and the finish, which is impressively persistent. 87
Anam Cara, Willamette Valley, Nicholas Estate Riesling 2006, $21: Sourced from a one acre vineyard, this wine features lovely aromas with open fruit notes accented with subtle mineral tinges. Very pure fruit notes display notable sweetness, but fresh acidity maintains a near-optimal balance through the finish. 87
Argyle, Willamette Valley, Riesling 2006, $25: Ripe and notably sweet but never cloying, this very well made wine remains balanced and fresh from the first palate impression right through the finish, seeming generous rather than especially sweet. 87
Ponzi, Willamette Valley, Riesling 2006, $25: Especially expressive in aromatic terms, this features soft, sweet, ripe fruit scents with notes of baked apples and honey. The flavors aren't quite as complex as the aromas, and the acidity is just up to the task of counterbalancing the wine's sweetness, but the aromas and pure fruit still make this a winner. 86
Belle Pente, Willamette Valley, Riesling 2005, $18: Open, expressive fruit notes provide a very pleasant and promising aromatic introduction to this wine, which then seems surprisingly restrained in flavor impact on the palate. Despite the overtly fruity aromas, the acidity is very prominent, and the finish strikingly dry. 86
Brandborg, Umpqua Valley, Riesling 2006, $16: Sourced from a cool microclimate within a relative warm region, this shows nice juicy fruit notes with a faint mineral tinge and energetic acidity that lends nice freshness to the finish. 86
Vitae Springs Vineyard, Willamette Valley, Riesling 2006, $19: Overtly sweet on palate, this is really a sipping wine more than a table wine, as the acidity isn't quite sufficient to provide a workable balance for most foods. However, this is not a knock on the wine so much as a recommendation for usage, as the wine in unquestionably tasty in the basic profile of a German Kabinett-level Riesling. 85
Coeur de Terre Vineyard, Oregon, Riesling 2006, $23: This is very dry and admirably so, in light of the fact that this wine does not come off as pinched or austere, but rather lean and restrained. Fruit flavors recalling tart apples are fresh, pure and pleasant. 85
Amity, Willamette Valley, 'Wedding Dance' Riesling 2006, $18; Willamette Valley Vineyards, Oregon, Riesling 2006, $12; Brooks, Willamette Valley, Riesling 2006.
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