Almost stealthily, a shift toward experimentation in aromatic white wine varieties has taken place among wineries from southern Oregon up to the most northern vineyards of Washington State. It started with the trend toward unoaked Chardonnays, with their generally fruit- driven aromas, and then expanded to encompass white wine grapes previously unknown in the Pacific Northwest—Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürtztraminer among them. All are proving that this region is capable of as much aromatic white wine diversity as California.
Though there’s no hard and fast definition for what characterizes an ‘aromatic white,” most winemakers are in agreement on their general character. They are fermented in stainless steel or concrete, so the aromas reflect the fruit and not a barrel. They are picked at brix levels that ensure naturally high acidity and low to moderate alcohol levels. In the glass and in the mouth they display fresh fruit, especially citrus, along with floral and mineral highlights. More often than not, the vines are planted on marginal soils, at higher elevations, in places that occupy the borders of viable wine-growing regions.
Among the leading aromatic whites globally, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Viognier have proven themselves to be well-suited to the unique terroirs of the Pacific Northwest. The northern Willamette Valley, Columbia Valley and Canadian Okanagan all have conditions that favor the production of these wines.
Pinot Gris/Grigio has a long history in the Northwest, and is now the third most planted white wine grape in Washington. Riesling, of course, is the foundation grape for Washington, and enjoying a spectacular renaissance, with a generous boost from European collaborators such as Ernst Loosen and Armin Diel. Pinot Blanc, though not widely grown, can produce quite elegant, mineral-driven wines in Oregon. And Viognier has become the white wine darling of young boutique vintners throughout both states.
Geologist Kevin Pogue, who teaches at Whitman College in Walla Walla, has done extensive studies on Columbia Valley vineyard soils. As good as the region’s aromatic white wines are, he sees room for further improvement.
“Think about where those grapes achieve the greatest aromatic complexity—Alsace, the Rheingau, the northern Rhône,” Pogue notes. “What are the qualities of those places? Stony soils; growing conditions not too hot; and a high enough latitude that in the ripening season the sun angle starts dropping off precipitously, allowing for nighttime cooling.”
Certainly there are places in the Northwest that can provide those conditions, and as new AVAs such as Ribbon Ridge, the Columbia Gorge and Lake Chelan are certified and new vineyards are developed, still more unusual grapes, such as Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, and even Picpoul are being tried.
Seven Hills winery owner Casey McClellan has been growing grapes and making wines in the Walla Walla Valley for almost 30 years. He finds that “there are certain varietals that naturally push that intensity in the nose, particularly Viognier and Riesling. They reach out to people.”
Calling his winery “a nose house, rather than a structure house,” he explains that picking the right yeast, keeping the fermentation temperature relatively low, and avoiding oxidation are the keys to aromatic intensity.
Gewürztraminer is perhaps the most effusively perfumed of all the best-known aromatics. Much like Riesling, it is produced in a vast range of styles, from bone-dry wines to ice wines. Most commonly, it is off-dry, with an oily or slightly soapy mouthfeel. Gewürztraminers are often quite floral, though from some vineyards, such as Celilo, in the Columbia Gorge AVA, they show more bracing minerality and a full palate of citrus fruits.
Whether dry or off-dry, Gewürztraminer is often paired with southeast Asian foods. It will also work well with oily or smoked fish and soft cheeses. Top producers include Amity, Brandborg, Phelps Creek, Francis Tannahill, David Hill, and Sineann (in Oregon); Pacific Rim, Upland Estates, and Hogue (in Washington).
Pinot Blanc has been dismissed as “poor man’s Chardonnay” for much of its history in the Northwest, but in fact many Oregon wineries make wonderful versions, and for a few it is their best white wine. WillaKenzie Estate is top of class, producing an elegant version with scents of lemongrass and grapefruit, and mixed fruit flavors of melon, gooseberry, lime and stone fruits. Drink these refined and subtle wines with mild cheeses, creamy sauces or fresh-caught trout.
Other fine Pinot Blancs come from Thistle, Chehalem, Adelsheim, J. Scott Cellars, the Eyrie Vineyards, Ponzi, Amity, Elk Cove and David Hill.
Pinot Gris was first planted in Oregon in the mid-1960s by the late David Lett (founder of the Eyrie Vineyards). He maintained it was the first time the grape had been grown anywhere in this country. It came into prominence much later, with the founding of King Estate, an Oregon winery (and nursery) dedicated specifically (and for a long time solely) to producing Pinot Gris. The Oregon style of this wine is rich and fleshy, with luscious flavors of fresh-cut pears and cinnamon spice. In Washington, Pinot Gris (sometimes labeled Pinot Grigio) has become the third most popular white wine grape, and is done in a bright, tart, sometimes racy style with an emphasis on apple and Asian pear flavors.
Aromatic (as in unoaked) Pinot Gris will match up with similar fare as Chardonnay, but with a bit more flesh (Oregon) and snap (Washington). Top producers include ArborBrook, Eyrie, Chehalem, Adelsheim, Soléna, Vista Hills, David Hill, Ponzi, Boedecker Cellars, Lemelson, Sineann and King Estate (in Oregon); Alexandria Nicole, Hyatt Vineyards, Chatter Creek, Seven Hills, Mercer Estates, Waterbrook, and Lone Canary (in Washington). The best bets for value are Hyatt, Acrobat, A to Z Wineworks and Waterbrook.
Riesling. Washington is home to the largest producer of Riesling in the world (Ste. Michelle Wine Estates). Pacific Rim, a relatively new project from California’s Randall Grahm, specializes in Riesling, making up to 10 different versions in a single vintage. No white grape better captures the Washington style, a riveting mix of floral, citrus, apricot and peach scents and flavors, often threaded with honeysuckle or orange marmalade notes. Rieslings may be quite dry, off-dry, sweet or ultra-sweet. A sweetness scale, developed by the International Riesling Foundation and shown on back labels, is being used by some producers to give consumers a better idea of the style in any particular bottle.
Depending upon its level of sweetness, Riesling can accompany almost any part of the meal, from appetizers through dessert. It is a surprisingly flexible wine, especially the driest styles, that can take on most main courses other than red meats. Top producers in Oregon include newcomer Trisaetum, Chehalem, David Hill, Argyle, Amity, Lemelson, Brandborg, Anam Cara and Daedalus Cellars.
In Washington the very best are the Poet’s Leap (from LongShadows) and Eroica (from Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen) closely followed by the single-vineyard offerings from Pacific Rim, Dunham Cellars and Efesté. Also very good are the Rieslings from Whitman Cellars,
Milbrandt, Gamache Vintners, Nefarious Cellars, Tempus Cellars, J. Bookwalter, Seven Hills, Trust, O-S, Zero One and Hogue. For great value look to the inexpensive Rieslings from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Pacific Rim, Snoqualmie, Arbor Crest, Kungfu Girl, Columbia Crest Two Vines and Grand Estates and Idaho’s Ste. Chapelle.
Viognier is the most recent addition to the aromatic pantheon, but has captured the imagination of winemakers, as it brings Rhône-ish intensity to white wine the way Syrahs do to reds. Along with its lesser-known blending companions Marsanne and Roussanne, Viognier is finding its proper style as site selection and vineyard management of the tricky grape improve.
The best Viogniers are poised on a razor’s edge of ripeness, retaining their moderate acidity without bitterness, and reaching for peachy fruit without becoming flabby or hot. It’s a fun grape to experiment with as far as food pairings are concerned, playing off whatever highlights (floral, citrus, stone fruits) a given example may reflect. Best consumed lightly chilled, to mute the heat. Top producers are Novelty Hill, àMaurice, K Vintners, Rulo, Stevens, Abeja, Alexandria Nicole, Abacela, Alma Terra, Illahe, McKinley Springs, Quady North, Bunnell Family, Caterina, McCrea, Seven Hills, Lullaby, J. Scott, Melrose Vineyards, Coeur d’
Alene Cellars, Dusted Valley and Hogue.