With pinot noir's complete dominance of the Oregon wine industry, it can be hard for other grape varieties to get a foothold. Pinot gris has its fans; chardonnay producers have made a bid for recognition. In the warmer growing areas in the south, tempranillo performs well. However, Oregon's best-kept wine secret may be riesling.
Riesling isn't a newcomer in Oregon. It was among the first grapes planted in the early 1960s, when Oregon wine pioneer Richard Sommer planted his Hillcrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley. Thirty years ago, nearly a quarter of Oregon's wine production was riesling, and much of it was being planted in the cooler Willamette Valley to the north. Then along came pinot noir, and everything else took a back seat.
Today, about 800 acres of riesling are planted in Oregon, out of a total grape acreage of 20,000. (California, by comparison, has a little over 4,000 acres of riesling planted, less than 1 percent of the state's total wine grape acreage.)
One of the trademarks of Oregon riesling in a normal to cool vintage is its high acidity. "We jokingly refer to ourselves as acid freaks," says Sheila Nicholas of Anam Cara Cellars in Newberg, Ore. The 2009 rieslings were a little fatter, but the 2010 and 2011 wines have incredibly high levels of acidity. In the latter vintages, both of which were very cool, even rieslings with some residual sugar taste dry because any sweetness is balanced by bracing acidity.
Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder and winemaker at Chehalem in Newberg and one of Oregon riesling's most ardent proponents, adds that the wine is "not about lush, opulent mouthfeel." Rather, he says, Oregon rieslings are clean and fresh, with a firm acid backbone and some minerality. Fruit flavors range from citrus, particularly lime, to white stone fruit and apple, and the dominant styles are dry and just off-dry.
Rieslings, Peterson-Nedry says, "are probably the most versatile white wines, if not wines period" for pairing with food. And because of the high acidity, "the ageability of riesling is just magnificent."
Clearly, Oregon's riesling producers are a passionate bunch, and they've formed an informal group called the Oregon Riesling Alliance (www.oregonriesling.org). Peterson-Nedry was one of the group's early members. In the early 2000s, he says, a handful of riesling producers started getting together on a regular basis to do comparative tastings of rieslings from around the world. The group, he says, "wanted to elevate Oregon riesling to the point where it should be."
To that end, the group started a few years later to reach out to wine media in town for other events, such as the International Pinot Noir Celebration. The producers get together a couple of times a year for blind tastings of one another's wines, which affords them the opportunity to share ideas and offer critiques.
The alliance held one of its media tastings after the pinot noir celebration in July. Although it didn't include every member winery, nearly three dozen wines were available. Most were from the 2011 vintage, and some haven't been released yet. Many wineries are currently selling their 2009 and 2010 vintages. A note about labeling: Although some producers label certain wines as "dry," rieslings without that notation sometimes are equally dry.
Peterson-Nedry's rieslings are good examples of the Oregon style. His 2011 Chehalem Wind Ridge Block Riesling ($24) offers racy lime flavors and a lot of acidity to balance the residual sugar (2.1 percent, though it tastes like a lot less). The 2011 Chehalem Corral Creek Riesling ($24) has similar brisk acidity.
Trisaetum has a nice lineup of rieslings, some quite dry and some with just a hint of sweetness. Especially good was the 2011 Trisaetum Ribbon Ridge Estate Dry Riesling ($24), which displays bright lime and green apple fruit accented by a note of lime oil.
Nicholas' Anam Cara Cellars has a 2011 Dry Riesling ($22) that shows some minerality along with its zippy lime flavors. The "regular" 2011 Anam Cara Riesling ($22) has just a whisper of sweetness.
Contact Laurie Daniel at email@example.com.