There is general agreement that Oregon is known around the country and even outside our borders as the pinot noir state. This dates back as far as the late 1970s, when an Eyrie pinot showed well in a prestigious competition. A few years later Robert Parker lavished praise on the landmark 1983 vintage, just as many new wineries were being opened. By the end of that decade, with Robert Drouhin’s DDO project established, the reputation for Oregon pinot noir was on a strong upward trajectory.
Is this a curse or a blessing? Look at what has happened in the subsequent two decades. For starters, the geographical scope of Oregon wines has expanded dramatically. Eastern Oregon wineries in the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley AVAs are proliferating. Yet thanks at least in part to Oregon’s focus on pinot pinot pinot, some of the best eastern Oregon producers (notably in Walla Walla) have been “claimed” by Washington. Southern Oregon wineries have also experienced a dramatic growth spurt, and most are focusing on ABP wines – anything but pinot – in many instances. The state’s pinot-centric reputation does these wineries little or no good.
A brief visit to Abacela yesterday included tastings of estate-grown albariño, tempranillo, late harvest viognier and a fortified port-style wine crafted from true Portuguese varietals. In the barrel room we sampled syrahs and malbecs. Not a pinot in sight. Owner Earl Jones showed me a detailed soil map, with evidence that a fault line, running right through the middle of his property, divides it neatly into one half with the oldest soils in Oregon (more than 250 million years old; and the youngest, created just 25,000 years ago. That’s a great story, and Abacela has the great wines to go with it. But I’m not holding my breath until Oregon becomes known as the tempranillo state.
Later, at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in the Applegate Valley, I tasted grenache and syrah, along with a three-grape white blend made from equal parts of marsanne, roussanne and viognier, co-fermented. This is exciting stuff! Biodynamically farmed (as are more and more Oregon vineyards), Cowhorn’s first few vintages are turning out distinctive, balanced wines with deep colors, ripe tannins and complex, earthy flavors, despite the youth of the vines. This winery, as do many others in Oregon, holds tightly to the vigneron concept – grower/winemakers, who cultivate their wines from the ground up. This is a great story to tell, as more and more consumers look to locally-grown foods and farmer’s markets.
It seems to me that it’s past time for Oregon’s vintners and especially its marketing organizations to make a concerted effort to showcase the state’s viticultural diversity. I’m not saying forget pinot, or abandon it. Absolutely not. But find creative ways to hitch some of the other wines and strengths to the pinot bandwagon.
I’ve become especially fond of white wines from Oregon. Not just pinot gris and chardonnay, but also riesling, pinot blanc, and more rarified offerings such as albariño and arneis. They have a delicacy and floral aspect generally missing from other west coast whites. Oregon’s non-pinot reds are starting to define themselves regionally also, though the competition for such varietals as syrah is intense. It seems everyone is making syrah these days, and no one is buying it. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, I suggest that if you are a friend of Oregon pinot noir, you grab a bottle of pinot blanc or riesling from your favorite producer as well. You may be very pleasantly surprised.