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Riesling Rising in Oregon
By Linda Murphy
Jan 28, 2014
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Approximately 10 years ago, Rollin Soles, co-founder of and then winemaker at Argyle Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, told me that Riesling could -- I emphasize could -- be the state’s best white wine grape.  With raised brow, I said, “Really?”

At the time, Pinot Gris claimed that distinction and Chardonnay was just beginning to evolve in Oregon, once Soles and his mates gained access to rootstocks and clones better suited to their growing conditions.  But now I see, and taste, what Soles was taking about a decade ago, when Argyle was one of the very few Oregon wineries to produce Riesling.

Riesling will never top Pinot Gris nor even Chardonnay in acreage planted and cases produced, yet it’s a fascinating niche wine, with a handful of producers turning in excellent results.  They may be few, but they do the state proud in expanding its varietal diversity at a high quality level.

Just 718 acres of Riesling are planted in Oregon, well behind the top four grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Syrah (mostly grown in Southern Oregon).  The variety, as demonstrated in Germany, Austria, Alsace, the Finger Lakes of New York, and Michigan’s Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, thrives in cold (and often wet) conditions.  The chill gives the wines their bracing acidity, even at their sweetest levels.

Way back in 1961, California-grown Richard Sommer moved to Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley to plant Riesling (and Pinot Noir) at his Hillcrest Vineyards in Roseburg.  Others followed his Riesling lead into the 1980s, but ground suited to the grape was also the place to grow the far more profitable and desired Pinot Noir; Riesling vines in many vineyards were replaced with Pinot.

The recent mini-renaissance of Riesling in Oregon is attributed to several factors. During a recent visit to Willamette Valley, winemakers told me that they yearn to produce serious white wines to balance out their Pinot Noir offerings.  Pinot Gris is ubiquitous in the state, easy to grow and produce, and while admirable examples exist, the variety doesn’t offer the satisfying challenge that winemakers and wine drinkers seek.

Only the most passionate growers and wineries would devote precious land to Riesling, when Pinot Noir can command a $50-$60 bottle price to Riesling’s $25 or so in Oregon.  As well, Riesling’s ease of sale is largely dependent on purchasers already familiar with the varietal.  The wine can be a tough sell in the tasting room, because consumers don’t always understand the interplay of grape sweetness and acidity, and assume either that “Riesling is sweet” and pass on the wine, or are disappointed when a high-residual sugar Riesling isn’t as sweet as they expected, because of its bracing acidity.

Education is the key to Riesling sales in the United States, no matter where the wines are made. Yet few wineries have the desire and patience to offer that education, so Riesling remains an enigma to the typical wine buyer, while it is covetted by aficionados.

Three dozen wineries are members of the Oregon Riesling Alliance (ORA), which promotes the variety and of course, their wines.  One of the most prominent members is Trisaetum, known to produce as many as six Rieslings from any given vintage.  Based in the Ribbon Ridge sub-AVA of Willamette Valley, James and Andrea Frey produce scintillating Rieslings, alongside prerequisite Pinot Noirs.

I’m also fond of the dry and off-dry Rieslings from Anam Cara Cellars in the Chehalem Mountains sub-AVA.  Owners Nick and Sheila Nicholas left Napa Valley -- she worked in public relations there, he made pizzas in their restaurant -- to pursue their dream of owning a vineyard and producing wine.  While their Pinot Noirs, natch, are their most visible wines, the Anam Cara Rieslings are worth a search.

Harry Peterson-Nedry at Chehalem Wines, Lynne Penner-Ash at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, and Rollin Soles at Argyle (he “retired” from the winery in 2013 to concentrate on his ROCO brand with his wife, Corby, yet continues to consult at Argyle) are among my favorite Willamette Valley Riesling producers.

But don’t overlook Southern Oregon’s Brandborg Cellars, in the new Elkton AVA in the Umpqua Valley.  Terry Brandborg, another immigrant from California, and his wife, Sue, produce stellar Riesling and Pinot Noirs from a region not particularly known for these varietals.

So here’s the thing: Riesling is not a major player in Oregon, yet those who produce it have an affinity for the variety and a devotion to making (and drinking) it.  If you’re of like mind, don’t miss the Rieslings of Oregon.  

Read Linda Murphy's reviews of Oregon Rieslings and other wines at http://www.WineReviewOnline.com/wine_reviews.cfm