For decades, the wine industry has offered misguided delineations of the wider world of wine: among the least helpful is the term Pacific Northwest. Most retailers and many wine lists clump Oregon and Washington’s output in this fashion, but the two states’ wine industries couldn’t be any more different, and the style of their wines any more diverse.
Oregon is famously built on the sometimes supple, often shaky back of Pinot Noir. Despite efforts to diversify into Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (among others), it is still Pinot Noir that earns the state its acclaim.
And it is Pinot Noir that most consumers associate with its cool, sometimes soggy vineyards. Many, if not most, Oregon wineries and vineyards were birthed with one goal: to make fantastic Pinot Noir. If the results are sometimes uneven, keep in mind that Pinot Noir can be difficult to make into a consistently lovely wine.
The media offers a confused portrait of just what a great Pinot Noir ought to be. Is it soft, seductive, gentle and even earthy, as in traditional red Burgundy? Is it more powerful, dark and spicy, as in California’s bottlings of the grape?
Both poles can be represented, as well as every version in between, but for many of us traditionalists, Oregon is most revered because it is uniquely capable of offering the seductive, Burgundian character, while California has versions aplenty of the big Syrah-like style.
Meanwhile, Washington has always eschewed a single-grape focus. The industry was founded not by Pinot Noir devotees, but by scientists. So instead of one grape, they have excelled at many, and at various times. Washington State has been known for its Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, and it has done great work with each of these grapes.
The state’s dry and warm vineyard conditions (at least in central and eastern Washington, where most vines are found) offer a kind environment to the grape, although irrigation is generally required. Nonetheless winters can be harsh: killing frosts and freezes are an annual threat to most vineyards.
Washington has proven to be America’s best producer of Merlot for decades, and Syrah is usually more interesting here than in any other spot in the U.S. There may be greatness ahead for other grapes, including Cabernet Franc. Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and who knows what else? The inquisitive personality of the state’s industry is unlikely to leave any grape untried.
Oregon has had its mind made up on which grape for decades, but despite its monoculture, any profile of Oregon wine ought to take into account that southern part of the state is a different, warmer and drier landscape and that Rhone varieties such as Grenache, Syrah and Viognier are adept there along the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys. But those wines are still nascent, at least in the national marketplace.
For my palate, Oregon Pinot Noir still embodies America’s most consistent region for that often irascible grape, and the vintages 2010 and 2011, which have received such harsh criticism from the media, are sometimes lovely, elegant and perhaps even long-lived versions of that wine.
Both states have found merit in the challenging 2010 and 2011 vintages; cool years that offer lighter, less bombastic wine than in most past vintages. The best are lovely, supple wines. Moreover both states share in common excellent value and increasing excellence in their wines.
Make no mistake, these vintaes must be picked through, but producers such as Adelsheim, Bethel Heights, Brick House, Brooks, Cameron, Chehalem, Cristom, Dobbes, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, J.K. Carriere, Hatcher, Ken Wright, King Estate, Lange, McKinlay, Patricia Green, Penner-Ash, Ponzi, R. Stuart, Ransom, Rex Hill and Shea and Willakenzie always make seductive wines.
With twice as many wineries as Oregon (over 600 of them), Washington requires some picking through as well. But consider wineries such Abeja, àMaurice, Andrew Will, Betz Family, Bookwalter, Buty, Cadence, Cayuse, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Dunham, Forgeron, Gramercy, Janiuk, K Vintners, Kiona, L’Ecole #41, McCrea Cellars, Reininger, Reynvaan, Syncline, Tamarack, Three Rivers, Va Piano, Walla Walla Vintners and Woodward Canyon.
And be sure to take particular note of Ayres Winery in Oregon and Maison Bleue in Washington, both founded and run by former Kansas Citians. Ayres Pinot Noirs have grown in structure and stature since their founding in 2000; their wines should be on the short list of any Pinot Noir enthusiast. Maison Bleue is crafting delicious wines from Rhone Valley grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Both are small enough not to be well-known, yet both deserve far greater fame.
Doug Frost is a wine and spirits consultant based in Kansas City. He holds the rare dual distinction of master of wine and master sommelier. His column appears in The Star’s Food section.