The Pinot noir is one of the most widely acknowledged varietals in Oregon, but it’s often overlooked in favor of other more popular grapes. We wanted to change that, so we headed to a place few people know about: the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where we discovered that the Pinot noir is actually quite the grape.

I was recently sent a bottle of pinot noir from Oregon, which has garnered a fair amount of attention recently due to its low production and high price. Most of the tasters I’ve had it, I’ve found to be underwhelming, but this one from Willamette Valley is different.

Wines that are rising stars or fallen angels often reflect sales trends. They can influence consumer perceptions of a particular grape variety and sometimes of an entire region. For example: Oregon and its reputation for Pinot Gris comes and goes.

The first commercial home cultivation of Pinot Gris was done half a century ago by David Lett, founder of The Eyrie Vineyards. Twenty-five years later, he wrote that he was confronted with the dreary syndrome of shops, restaurants and merchants: If it’s a white wine and not a chardonnay, I can’t work with it.

Although pinot gris seemed a natural complement to Oregon’s growing reputation for producing excellent pinot noirs and an ideal companion for Pacific Northwest salmon, it has hit a dead end.

At three pinot gris symposia a decade ago, everyone agreed that the selling price peaked at $12. This maximum price should exclude all new investments in vineyards, vats and the like. The simple, standard and cheap Pinot Gris was in a downward spiral.

Under the leadership of pinot gris super-producer King Estate, this grim scenario has changed. The winery currently produces up to 10 different versions and 100,000 cases of a single vintage. This range, says winemaker Brent Stone, allows him to experiment with different vineyards and methods, such as fermentation in concrete tanks and long-term aging in surrogates.

Views of King Estate Vineyards in Eugene, Oregon / Courtesy of King Estate

Although King Estate leads in sales of $15-$20 pinot gris, both imported and domestic, according to the latest Nielsen data, it is certainly not alone. Compared to 2015, acreage in the state increased by nearly 50 percent. Along with Oregon’s Chardonnays and Rieslings, Pinot Gris is a major contributor to the state’s status as a world-class white wine producer.

Keeler Estate Vineyard is another pinot gris pioneer. The range of wines, all made from biodynamic grapes grown on the estate, includes the Pinot Gris which is skinned and cold aged for five days before fermentation. The result is a subtle pinkish hue and a sweeter taste. There is also the Concrete Dolia Pinot Gris, which is fermented in concrete eggs, and the Barrel Aged, which is aged in neutral French oak.

In the Barrel Aged bottle, the long maturation process, 18 months in only neutral oak, softens the taste and adds a slightly honeyed character to the fresh pear, apple and citrus aromas. In response to a question about aging, Keeler sent cultures that were a real eye-opener.

Of course, these wines had a perfect provenance, as they came straight from the cellar. Still, it is quite possible to age the best Oregon Pinot Gris for six to ten years. Keeler’s 2011 was surprisingly fresh and bright, with subtle floral and sweet accents. In 2014, a more successful vintage, the same characteristics emerged in the lush, sweet-salty palate with exceptional depth.

Bottles of
Keeler Estate Vineyard Pinot Gris Line in Amity, Oregon / Courtesy of Keeler Estate Vineyard

Current harvests of premium pots of Oregon grapes average about $20 and are getting more expensive by the day, with the improvement in quality more than justifying the price. Consider the widely available King Estate ($19) from Willamette Valley, the Leisure Pinot Gris ($32) from Authentique, fermented and aged in a mix of amphorae, concrete eggs and neutral oak, and the Estate Pinot Gris ($19) from Elk Cove, which opens with a bright mix of grapefruit, lemon curd and candied orange peel.

If cheap Italian Pinot Grigio is all you’ve tasted of this variety, it’s time to explore Oregon’s offerings. You’ll discover a world of flavors that pair particularly well with seafood, but can also enhance and even improve other white wine options. Better yet, save a few bottles to enjoy later.

Published on the 4th. June 2021

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