For decades Oregon’s white wine reputation depended almost exclusively on Pinot Gris. Good as those wines have become, vintners have made stunning progress in both the north and south of the state with a variety of white grapes.
Chardonnay and Riesling, ageworthy and vivid with juicy acidity, abound in the Willamette Valley. Examples like the High Wire Chardonnay from Bethel Heights Vineyard offer textural wines that are a testament to the power of old vines in the area. Some producers are looking to the past for inspiration, like with Keeler’s Terracotta Amphorae Riesling, which uses clay vessels during fermentation to offer a new take on the variety. These stalwarts are joined with sappy, mineral-driven, food-ready wines such as Auxerrois from Björnson Vineyard and Carlton Cellars, while Treos explores an unusual style of Dry Muscat.
In Southern Oregon, Albariño, Viognier and white Rhône-style blends are catching on, notably in the Applegate Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), where Troon is also working wonders with Vermentino. From the Elkton and Rogue Valley AVAs come even more unusual bottlings, such as a lush, ripe Sauvignon Blanc from River’s Edge or a floral yet dry Gewürztraminer from Foris.
Amid all this dazzling exploration, Pinot Blanc may prove to be Oregon’s next best white wine. The grape isn’t new in Oregon, but its reputation was tarnished from the start due to a mislabeling of nursery vines back in the 1980s which mistook Melon de Bourgogne for Pinot Blanc. Once that had been untangled, genuine Pinot Blancs were relegated to being the “poor man’s Chardonnay,” kept in check by low price points which in turn dampened experimentation.
Jason Lett, winemaker at The Eyrie Vineyards, was an early proponent of Pinot Blanc, but kept it dry and very crisp in style. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that winemakers such as Lett and Ben Casteel, co-owner, director and winemaker at Bethel Heights Vineyard, began to emphasize the floral aromatics as well as the underlying minerality. Meanwhile, Ken Wright Cellars tried barrel fermenting and extended lees contact to add texture and spice.
Adam Campbell, owner and winemaker at Elk Cove Vineyards, believes he can gain complexity and concentration by planting on steep slopes and shallow soils, naturally cutting down on yields. “We also pick the grapes when they are just beyond simple citrus flavors yet before they get to the tropical realm,” he says. “Stone fruit flavors are the key to what I am after.”
Bill Sweat, founder of Winderlea Vineyard and Winery, seeks complexity by fermenting in clay amphora, neutral oak and stainless steel, then blending the wines together into a single cuvée. “We like the mouthfeel from the amphora (viscous with some salinity) and oak (a little richness) with the structure and freshness of the stainless steel” he explains.
At Harper Voit, winemaker and proprietor Drew Voit is producing three different versions of Pinot Blanc, which he describes as “a re-approachment to the grape through the lenses of Burgundy and Champagne. I’ve got a point to make with Pinot Blanc,” he says. “I think it’s a misunderstood and forgotten noble grape variety.”
Along with a sparkling version, Voit produces Surlie, which is barrel fermented and spends nine months on the lees, and Élevage, which spends 21 months on the lees and goes through full malolactic. Bethel Heights has one of the valley’s oldest plantings of Pinot Blanc, dating back to 1992. With the release of the 2014 vintages, Ben Casteel introduced his Élevage bottling, which exhibits lots of barrel toast, honey and butterscotch richness.
These experiments and many more are creating a bright future for Oregon’s white wines.
Bethel Heights 2015 The High Wire Chardonnay (Eola-Amity Hills); $95, 95 points. This is from an old-vines Wente clone, planted in 1977. You’ll notice the texture first, layers of well-proportioned citrus, lemon zest, wet stone and hints of barrel toast. The length and detail are superb, and though drinking well already, this is a wine that will reward cellaring. Drink now through the 2020s. Cellar Selection.
Keeler 2017 Terracotta Amphorae Riesling (Eola-Amity Hills); $32, 93 points. Keeler is doing some interesting experimentation with fermentation methods, and here they deliver a stunning amphora-fermented, off-dry Riesling. The wine offers a fine mix of apricot, peach and nectarine tones that display a sweet and sour tension. It finishes with a lick of butterscotch. Editors’ Choice.
Elk Cove 2017 Estate Pinot Blanc (Willamette Valley); $19, 92 points. This sophisticated effort is highlighted by bright, polished fruit flavors of apple, melon and white peach. It’s long and focused, fresh and immaculate, with no apparent new oak. Editors’ Choice.
Treos 2016 Dry Muscat (Willamette Valley); $21, 92 points. Two different Muscat clones are blended, and the wine is finished completely dry. The aromas are classic for the variety—rosewater, orange peel and citrus blossom. Flavors of orange, apricot and peach rule the palate, with a hint of brioche through the lengthy finish. Have fun pairing this with a variety of spicy noodle dishes. Editors’ Choice.
Bryn Mawr Vineyards 2017 David’s Block Estate Grown Pinot Blanc (Eola-Amity Hills); $25, 91 points. This wine’s fresh, ripe pear flavor is accented by touches of tart orange and lemon peel. Though technically dry, it has enough residual sugar to gently round off its youthful edges and keep the alcohol rather low.
Carlton Cellars 2017 Auxerrois (Yamhill-Carlton); $22, 91 points. Though still rare, Auxerrois seems to have found a good home in Oregon, as this young wine clearly demonstrates. Crisp apple, juicy nectarine, pink grapefruit and Meyer lemon components come together seamlessly, bound with snappy, refreshing, mineral-driven acidity. Editors’ Choice.
River’s Edge 2017 Vintage Farm Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Elkton Oregon); $18, 91 points. Mike Landt makes an amazingly deep, ripe Sauvignon Blanc, especially given his cool-climate location. It is rich and textural, with dense fruit flavors of melon, grapefruit and kiwi and a lush and creamy mouthfeel. Editors’ Choice.
Brooks 2017 Amycas White (Willamette Valley): $18, 90 points. A perfectly composed blend of 30% Riesling, 20% Pinot Blanc, 25% Muscat, 10% Gewürztraminer and 15% Pinot Gris, this nicely integrates the various aromatic, spicy and fruity components from the different grapes. Tart apple, orange, lemon and grapefruit flavors come in equal proportion, with a refreshing minerality underscoring the fruit. Editors’ Choice.
Foris 2017 Dry Gewürztraminer (Rogue Valley); $15, 90 points. This wine offers a deft mix of rose petal, baby powder and lychee aromas. There’s plenty of spice, and, as it’s bone dry, it matches well with peppery noodle dishes. Best Buy.
Troon 2017 Vermentino (Applegate Valley); $18, 90 points. In the midst of a major transformation to new varieties, a biodynamic vineyard and innovative fermentations, Troon scores with this rich, toasty, barrel-fermented white wine. A ripe mix of fruits brings poached pear and banana to the front, with a lick of vanilla custard as the wine trails off. Delicious already, so drink up. Editors’ Choice.