The Willamette Valley just south of Portland, Oregon, is home to some of the prettiest pinot noirs and richest chardonnays in the country.
These wines aren’t cheap — leaving aside a few special bottles direct from the wineries, our average cost at a recent tasting was $25 per bottle. But Oregon wines are consistently interesting and often very good, with fruit, spice and elegance that make them worth their higher price.
In Madison, finding excellent Oregon wines is getting easier, thanks to enthusiastic shop owners and winemakers like Helioterra’s Anne Hubatch who have maintained their Madison connections.
Restaurateur/sommelier Lucas Henning, co-owner of Graft, has traveled to Brooks Winery in the Willamette for two consecutive vintages to blend a pinot specifically for his downtown restaurant.
For the month of May, my wine group turned its focus to the state of Oregon and found several bottles worth seeking out. To start, the 2017 Teutonic Wine Company “Seafoam” ($24 at Square Wine Company) from the Alsea Vineyard was a white pinot noir, something most of us had never had.
It reminded us of “a blanc de noir without bubbles,” as one taster said, referring to a type of Champagne. The wine had flavors of grapefruit and a touch of sweetness, with less acidity than a sauvignon blanc.
Table Wine stocked the 2016 Helioterra Arneis ($19.99), a “weird” white from the Redman Vineyard in Ribbon Ridge, a sub-AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the Willamette Valley. Tasters found it to have honey on the nose and flavors of unripe pear, cucumber and saline on the palate. For a fascinating and unusual white, seek this one out.
Lovers of pretty, creamy chardonnay got into the 2012 Brittan Vineyards chard ($29.99), an intriguing medium-bodied white with flavors of buttered popcorn and a touch of smoke. Smoke, in fact, is why I picked up the 2017 Teutonic Riesling ($26 at Square).
Nicknamed “Rauchwein,” this riesling made from fruit in the Pear Blossom Vineyard in Washington’s Columbia Gorge was exposed to smoke from summer wildfires. We sniffed and swirled, but mostly we got notes of ripe apricot, papaya, honey and lemon — no smoke.
“I guess smoke damaged fruit can make perfectly normal wine,” one friend said. If that proves widely true, it’s good news for the 2017 Napa vintage.
A less expensive riesling, the 2016 A to Z ($13.99 at Woodman’s East), is a porch wine with flavors of honey, Asian pear and signature riesling petrol. We thought it needed more acidity for the flavors to be in balance, and one taster pointed out that it’s “sweet, but not like airport moscato sweet.” I’d probably cut it with some soda water and lemon and make an Oregon summer spritz.
I confess I was swayed by both the carnation pink color and the name of the 2017 Portlandia Rosé ($19), a Concerts on the Square wine ahead of its season. This was such a summery wine, a blend of pinot gris and pinot noir from the Willamette and grenache from the Rogue Valley. It tasted of red fruit, red currants and watermelon rind.
Most of us, when we talk about Oregon reds, are talking about pinot noir. The first one in this tasting came from Eola-Amity Hills, another sub-AVA of the Willamette. The 2015 Salem Pinot Noir ($23 at Square), a biodynamic wine made by Evening Land Vineyards, spent 12 months in neutral French oak and came out with flavors of sour cherry and baking spice. If you pick this one up, give it some time to breathe.
Our third Teutonic wine of the tasting was a 2016 pinot noir from the Chehalem Mountains. Nicknamed “Bergspitze,” this wine was made from 100 percent Alsatian Coury clones (“brought back in a suitcase” by their namesake Charles Coury, the winery claims). It had intriguing flavors of Meyer lemon pith and rosewater, with spice on the end. We’d definitely drink this one young.
Some of the pinots needed a little time to unfold, among them the 2016 Floodline pinot from AVERÆN ($38 at Square). This wine had tons of spice, with the kind of cocoa and jam notes I often associate with merlot.
The Floodline was a pinot for fruit lovers, packing bing cherry and blackberry in with the baking spice. Unlike the Bergspitze, we’d give this one a few-five years to soften up — one friend said it was like “blankets on top of a statue.” The structure was there, but the wine needed time to integrate.
We finished the tasting with three bottles purchased at Oregon wineries, namely Beaux Freres, Domaine Serene and St. Innocent. Ranging in price from $32 for the elegant, cherry-filled 2011 St. Innocent Vitae Springs to the 2013 Domaine Serene Winery Hill, these wines showed off just what is so exciting about Oregon pinot — bright acidity, subtle spice and a smooth, beautiful finish.
“This tastes like falling in love,” one friend said as she swirled the Domaine Serene pinot in her glass. I think we all already had.