In recent decades, Oregon has gained global recognition as a leader in Pinot Noir. But such laser focus comes at a price—many wine drinkers don’t realize that Oregon grows about as many different types of grapes as Washington and California.
One standout that flies under the radar is Oregon Riesling.
It’s true that Washington is home to the world’s largest Riesling producer by volume, Chateau Ste. Michelle. California winemakers have scored successes at both the dry and sweet ends of the scale, and British Columbia has been producing some crystalline and racy examples. However, Oregon’s many Riesling specialists offer more diversity, value and quality than anywhere on the West Coast.
“People didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps they had Blue Nun in their youth, and as their tastes grew, they shied away from all Riesling.” —Terry Brandborg, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery
Old vines have been key to the state’s current success. Oregon’s Pinot pioneers often planted Riesling as well to keep up cash flow as their red wines aged. Matt Berson of Love & Squalor calls these early efforts “overcropped, one-note plonk.” That’s a bit harsh, but there’s some truth to it.
“People didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps they had Blue Nun in their youth, and as their tastes grew, they shied away from all Riesling,” says Terry Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery.
Nonetheless, we should thank those accidental Riesling pioneers. Old-vine examples seem to show more nuanced scents and flavors, as is true with old-vine Pinot Noir.
“I find that the older-vine Riesling tends toward a more natural balance, and there is no doubt that those deep roots pull some really precise and delineated flavors,” says Berson.
Then there is terroir. Oregon’s Riesling vines are scattered from the deep southwest corner of the state up to the northern edge of the Willamette Valley. Soils vary significantly, but what distinguishes them is the maritime influence that avoids the baking desert heat of eastern Washington. Many vines are also dry-farmed, which pushes roots deeper.
Given their explorations of clonal selections for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it’s no surprise that Oregon’s winemakers are also doing the same for Riesling.
Trisaetum’s James Frey says the state’s Riesling plantings were dominated by two German clones: Clone 9 from Rheingau and Clone 12 from Pfalz. He credits Chehalem’s Harry Peterson-Nedry for his experimentation with new clones.
Frey currently grafts new Riesling clones from the Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz and Alsace in his Coast Range and Ribbon Ridge vineyards.
Single-vineyard cuvées, native yeast ferments and experiments with concrete eggs also contribute to the region’s amazing diversity. Trisaetum produces up to 10 Rieslings each year, while Janie Heuck at Brooks made 20 in 2016, mostly single-vineyard cuvées.
“The goal is to show differences in wine characteristics due to vine age, soil type, aspect and elevation,” says Heuck.
Oregon wines can age quite well. The better Pinots can often go 20 years, and Oregon Chardonnays can even outperform Burgundies. Riesling is a grape born to age, and winemakers seek to prolong the drinking window of their bottlings.
The first vintage of Brooks Riesling was 1998, and it still drinks young, says Heuck. Brandborg’s first Oregon vintage was 2002, and, he says it’s drinking beautifully right now.
Bill Hooper, of Weinbau Paetra, learned winemaking in Germany, and he uses that experience as a model for his work. Berson points to the acid structure of the wines, which “provides a scaffolding (like tannins in a red) to hang the fruit and all other flavors from. As the wine ages, the sharp edges smooth and allow the complexity of secondary and tertiary notes to shine through.”
Based on his German training, Hooper says, “At around 15 years, Riesling [vines] really starts to establish itself in a way where terroir expression and the overcoming of extreme weather conditions is achieved. Many German producers will wait until this time to declare single-vineyard wines.”
Despite its quality and value, Riesling remains a minor player in Oregon, with just 724 planted acres as of 2015, half in the Willamette Valley. But as producers like Brandborg, Brooks, Chehalem, Love & Squalor, Paetra, Trisaetum and others squeeze the best out of their grapes, it’s arguably the most versatile and exceptional white wine in the state.