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Willamette Valley
by Steven Van Yoder
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 2.6

Pinot noir put Oregon on the map -- but pinot gris, riesling and chardonnay are quickly emerging as major forces behind the state's wine initiatives. The West has always attracted fortune seekers, rogues and refugees. And Oregon is no exception. People who've gone there have traditionally been searching for something. It started with Lewis and Clark seeking the nonexistent Northwest Passage. Then on the Oregon trail, nearly 2,000 miles long, came one of the greatest unforced mass migrations in history. And over the last 30 years, a different breed of pioneer has arrived in Oregon -- wine producers determined to make world-class wines from the state's rugged landscape.

It's taken a few years, but Oregon wines have arrived, holding their own among the best in the world. This is where pinot noir outside Burgundy rose to fame and where a good share of white wines, from pinot gris to chardonnay to riesling, has become increasingly popular. Oregon has also had much to do with why these whites have become readily available in shops and restaurants across America. It's time to look north of California to the wines of Oregon, which are certain to entice, seduce and win you over.

At Home In The Valley
The principle wine region in Oregon is the Willamette Valley, a 90-mile stretch of land just south of Portland. The region produces two-thirds of Oregon's wine, and most of the reputable producers reside there. The moderate maritime climate is especially suited to pinot noir, pinot gris and other varietals including chardonnay, riesling, pinot blanc and gerwurztraminer.

With winemaking requiring tremendous pioneer spirit, Oregon winemakers have developed a sense of toughness and a shared sense of mission. The weather can be fickle: rain doesn't fall in the winter months the way it's supposed to, and cloudcover can be perversely persistent. Though always a challenge, winemakers have persevered and now make consistent, high-quality wines.

In The Beginning
It all started when David Lett, Oregon's first contemporary wine pioneer, was seduced by pinot noir in the late 1960s. A native Californian, Lett moved north and established Eyrie Vineyards, a winery specializing in pinot noir, in an old turkey-plucking shed. Lett endured hardship, naysayers and bad weather and lived in a tent as he put everything into his struggling vineyard.

Fortunately Lett's faith paid off, and within a few years Eyrie Vineyards was producing top-quality pinots that competed with their Burgundian cousins. Other winemakers soon followed, including Californians Dick Erath, of Knudsen Erath Winery, and Dick Ponzi, of Ponzi Vineyards. Within a few decades their labors of love bore fruit and proved that Willamette Valley was more than capable of producing exceptional Burgundy-style wines equal to or even better than France's best.

Pinot Noir: In Search of the Holy Grail
Pinot noir is like a vintage Hollywood actress: at times Greta Garbo -- shy, beautiful and projecting an aura of sensual mystery; at other times Marlene Dietrich -- an unfathomable erotic sex goddess. As the superstar red grape of Burgundy, pinot noir has, over the years, seduced many an American winemaker.

A debutante, pinot noir is touchy, difficult to grow and notoriously fussy to work with. Even after fermentation, pinot can hide its weaknesses and strengths, making it difficult to evaluate out of barrel. In the bottle, it can be a chameleon, showing poorly one day, brilliantly the next.

So why bother to fight this fickle foe? Because the results can be amazing. The best examples offer seductive black cherry, spice, raspberry and currant flavors and aromas that resemble wilted roses, spicy perfume and earthiness. Pinot noir is also a great, versatile food wine. Some are packed with enough flavor to stand up to beef and lamb, while others are subtle enough to complement grilled salmon. Those who've experienced pinot noir at its best always come back for more.

Pinot Gris: Willamette's Other Wine
Pinot gris is a fortunate mutation of pinot noir. It has ties to Italy, where it's known as pinot grigio and also thrives in the Alsace region of France. This copper-gray -colored grape, when properly grown and vinified, produces a delicious white wine with complex aromas, a pale lustrous color and rich, crisp fruit flavors with an element of spiciness. Pinot gris, like pinot noir, thrives in Willamette and is earning a reputation as one of Oregon's best varietals.

Although it can be enjoyed on its own, pinot gris goes well with a variety of foods -- from tarragon chicken to braised pork loin. It's also an ideal accompaniment for many spicy regional dishes from the Southwest, Caribbean, Asia and India.

What Can You Expect?
Balance is the key word. At harvest, high natural acidity is matched with good sugar concentration, giving finished wines a firm body with considerable fresh fruit and fragrance. Willamette Valley is not an area suited to bulk wine production, which is why it has always set its standards firmly on quality, not quantity, and emphasized complexity and individuality.

Though pinot noir gets most of the press, white wines are gaining recognition. Willamette chardonnay's are consistently good, usually lighter and silkier in style than those of California and possess understated complexity. Riesling thrives in the cool climates and is made in a wide range of styles, from dry and crisp wines ideal for pairing with shellfish to sweet, richly flavored dessert wines.

Vintages
Though Willamette pinots come in a wide range of styles, one generalization can be made: 1994 is the year to beat. Wines produced that year are hailed for their incredible fruitiness and finesse. Bill Hatcher, manager of Domaine Drouhin, put three recent vintages into perspective: "1995 was not a slam-dunk vintage like 1994, when my dog could have made good wine. While 1994 was a great commercial success, it wasn't typical of what we do here in Oregon -- the wines lacked the subtlety and femininity. The winemakers much prefer their '93s and '95s. Wines made in 1996 are more like those of 1993, with a little more flesh to them."

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