Spotlight: Oregon & Washington

Oregon

When it comes to wine, Oregon doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Bigger, more powerful wines from Washington and California grab most of the attention, while Oregon sits wondering what it has to do to get a little more of the limelight.

If only everyone could see what Oregon has to offer! Like the best Burgundies, great Oregon Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays show their terroir proudly with a base of earthy minerals. Oregon Rieslings are complex and well-balanced, while Pinot Gris, in the hands of Oregon’s talented winemakers, is brilliant and fresh.

These are, without question, world-class wines. What Oregon doesn’t have is a world-class publicity machine in place to promote them, as does (for example) California. In addition, given the short history of winemaking in Oregon, its winemakers can’t simply point to the centuries-old pedigrees of their vineyards and expect us all to be impressed, as sometimes happens in (for example) Burgundy.

For the consumer, all of this means that Oregon wines are still largely free of hype – which no one wants to pay for.


Staff Picks:

McKinlay, Pinot Noir – 2012
Oh Oregon! You are America’s Pinot home; however, too frequently they end up over ripe, over fruited and sadly oaked- eons away from your original Burgundy model. And the gorgeous and artisanal Pinots carry a justifiably elevated price tag. I was so happy to find (and taste… and buy!) McKinlay Pinot, from a family with over a hundred years experience of farming in Oregon’s agricultural Eden. Since 1995, they have been Pinot specialists; their red currant fresh wine would bring a tear to the eye of a crusty Bourguignon vigneron. This is a holiday dinner party wine; a wine for gifting and a wine for selfishly keeping. It is especially a wine for the parents who bought into the whole “Freedom Fries” debacle, though you wave a flag every Bastille Day. (I speak from experience) And I stress, while perfect for turkey, it works all year round. -EP

Benton Lane Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley – 2010
Recently I attended a tasting of over 75 Oregon Pinot Noirs from 34 Willamette Valley wineries. The prices ranged from $11 to $100 a bottle. This Benton Lane offering stood out as not only a really good flavor profile of cherry, raspberry, and vanilla, but as a value wine. None of the other wines costing up to $60 could come close to this one. This does does not have wimpy flavor, and neither is it a fruit bomb. The Girards have been growing the grapes and making the wine at this location for over 20 years. Its middle-of-the-road intensity makes it suitable for turkey, chicken, planked salmon, and other light meats and hors d’oeuvres. -BF

Love, Oregon Riesling – 2010
One of the things I like to tell wine “newbies” when they are evaluating wine is first and foremost to ask themselves, “Do I want to take another sip of this wine?” If the answer is “No,” then toss it out and try something different. However, if the answer is “YES,” drink it down! The answer for this wine is unequivocally “YES”! Rich but not like the Alsace. Petrol, ripe apple, honey, and lush minerality. Very Oregon and very, very good! -OW

 

Washington

Now that Washington has happily embraced the fact that its wines are less subtle (and maybe more fun) than Oregon’s, the state is producing some of the biggest and best wines in the country.

White grapes have thrived in Washington for decades, but lately, the region’s red wines have made huge leaps in both quality and popularity. Merlot is one of the most commonly seen red grapes here, and Washington produces many delicious Bordeaux-style red blends.

Taste enough Washington reds and you’ll notice a recurring theme: the unapologetic use of new oak. The state produces a sea of jubilant, very plush red wines with pronounced flavors of spice and toasty vanilla.

Most Chardonnay made in Washington is barrel-fermented, and aging on the lees is standard; full-bodied Chardonnay is a Washington specialty. Chenin Blanc also does quite well here, in both oaked and unoaked expressions.

There’s quite a bit of experimentation going on in Washington as well. Grape varieties such as Lemberger, Syrah, Riesling, Sémillon, and Viognier have all found perfect Washington microclimates in which to thrive.

 

Staff Picks:

l’Ecole No. 41, Chardonnay – 2011
Fans of buttery Chardonnay rejoice! This Chard’s a “li’l” buttery with nice fruit that fortunately isn’t masked by the wine’s richness. It has really nice depth and notes of sesame seeds, toast, graphite, and last but not least, tropical fruit! It possesses the brightness and structure to pair well with food as well as the roundness and quaffability to drink “just cuz!” -OW

Betz “Père de Famille” Cabernet Sauvignon – 2009
A formidable Bordeaux blend from Washington State that can compete with any California Cabernet for power and form. If you’re looking for rich fruit supported by firm tannins, you’ve found it. Bob Betz is a stickler for quality and purity of fruit coupled with integrated French-oak influence. What sets this wine apart from the pack are its aromatics, a stunning array of violets, lush red fruits, and woody herbs combined with dark chocolate and vanilla spice. -KB

If you’re not familiar with the wines of the Pacific Northwest, try a few bottles from our Top 11 list. Whether you like your wines fruity and forward or muted and subtle, you’ll find something to love!