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Why Pinot is the star wine grape variety in Oregon USA

01 January 2000
Why Pinot is the star wine grape variety in Oregon USA

We puzzle over the strong smell of the sea, which lies 40 miles away through Oregon's chunky Coastal Range. "It's the kelp spray," explains Ed King III. "We try to use as much organic produce as possible - to reduce rot," he adds.

Rot is no joke in rainy Oregon. The real problems arise when it rains during harvest. The state loses about 10% of its grapes to mildew and the fungal infection botrytis. And if the vineyards are not properly managed, they lose even more.

We are visiting the King Estate, Oregon's largest winery. It lies 25 minutes' drive from the nearest town, Lorane. Swivel 360º outside the multi-million-dollar winery and you can see all 500 acres of the estate's hilly vineyards, broken up by giant spruce and the odd red-painted barn.

Oregon's wine scene once comprised a few small-scale producers, but some big operators have now moved in. King, the flashiest, has proved itself with some excellent wines - notably its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris - and is pouring cash into clone trials and site selection. "But we realise our youthfulness," says King, modestly.

Oregon lacks the maturity of its southern neighbour, California, and it doesn't have any Gallo-types - yet. And while Washington to the north covets water for its tumbleweed-choked vineyards, Oregon sits glumly through the steady rain, which falls, if it's lucky, between November and April - outside the crucial part of the growing season.

Pinot Noir is the star here but Oregon is becoming known for other varietals, especially Pinot Gris, which is fast ousting easy-selling Chardonnay. Chameleon-like, it matches a wide variety of foods. Pinot Gris was first planted here by Eyrie Vineyards' David Lett, who put Oregon Pinot Noir on the map. In a 1980 blind tasting of French Burgundies in France, Lett's 1975 Pinot Noir came second.

The industry is still packed with individualists. Wine-making couples abound - Ken and Karen Wright, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, and Bill and Virginia Fuller. The region has attracted foreign investors on a quest for the best Pinot - notably Maison Joseph Drouhin, the Burgundian negotiant.

California vintners, such as Carl Doumani of Stags Leap Winery and Gary Andrus of Pine Ridge Winery, have snapped up sites. And Australian wine-maker Brian Croser makes an admirable bubbly under the Argyle label (available through Mentzendorff, 0171-415 3200).

Wet and wild

So what is it about Oregon? It's wet, for sure. Too wet, some say, for Chardonnay, which can suffer from rasping acidity and thin fruit. The region gets an average 45in of rain a year - but twice that amount fell in 1995 and only half as much in 1992. King Estate's wine-maker Will Bucklin says: "It's unpredictable here - but it's a challenge."

The Willamette Valley is the coolest and wettest of the three designated viticultural regions, and is home to about two-thirds of Oregon's 120 wineries. To the south lie more wine districts - the Umpqua Valley and the Rogue River region, with its sub-appellations of the Applegate, Illinois and Rogue River Valleys. And there are a few vineyards in the desert climate of Eastern Oregon and Columbia Valley.

The world began to notice Oregon's wines in 1994. "We had low yields and didn't have to crop thin," remembers wine-maker Lynn Penner-Ash at Rex Hill. "It was sunny and warm and we had really ripe fruit." A rain-soaked 1995 yielded poorer wines, but 1996 and 1997 are looking good.

Oregon Pinot Noirs to watch are Archery Summit, Beaux Fräres, Ken Wright Cellars, Adelsheim and Ponzi. Big names available here include: Domaine Drouhin (Mentzendorff); King Estate (Southern Wine Brands 01484 608898); Rex Hill (Moreno 0171-723 6897); Amity (Pimlico Dozen 0171-834 3647); and Broadley (The Wine Portfolio 0171-834 9476).

Pinot Gris

British restaurants would do well to consider the region's Pinot Gris for their wine lists, too. Forget the comparatively bland treatment of the same grape in Italy, Pinot Grigio - this wine is closer to that made in its original home of Alsace. And prices tend to be be lower than for Pinot Noir, ranging from $10 (£6.10) to $20 (£12.20) a bottle.

The best I tasted was from Chehalem. It's not over here yet, but owner and wine-maker Harry Peterson-Nedry is seeking an agent. He makes his Pinot Gris as close to the Alsatian style as possible by harvesting at full ripeness and fermenting to dryness, with a little residual sugar left to round things out. He makes two styles - the Willamette Valley, fermented in stainless steel, and the Reserve, which is barrel-fermented and aged sur lie in neutral oak.

The 1997 combines Stoller and Ridgecrest Vineyards fruit. It has a poached-apricot and ripe-melon nose, and crisply balanced acidity. The 1996 Reserve is more complex and luscious - Peterson-Nedry reckons it's the best he's ever made.

Other Pinot Gris worth considering include King Estate, Amity, Elk Cove (The Wine Portfolio), Willamette Valley (Winelink International 01280 824120) and Erath (Hallgarten Wines 01582 722538).

Myron Redford, meanwhile, has high hopes for Pinot Blanc. Redford is president and wine-maker of Amity Vineyards in Yamhill County, Willamette Valley. His Pinot Noir grabs the most attention - the Wine-makers' Reserve in particular - but he also makes a Pinot Blanc that's zesty and zippy.

And, like a growing number of wine-makers, he has pulled up Chardonnay in favour of Pinot Blanc. "In this cool climate, we can't produce the rich, buttery Californian style of Chardonnay that people expect," he says. "Pinot Blanc can fulfil that role and I think it will be very successful." But along with other pioneering growers, he will have to wait 20 years or so before finding out if the gamble has paid off.

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