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Where and What on the Winelist: Willamette Valley Pinot Gris
June 2009

Oregon’s Willamette Valley. South of Portland, the valley is Oregon’s primary wine region, though smaller AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are scattered down the coast toward California, and in addition, a bit of the Columbia Valley (mainly a Washington AVA) pokes into Oregon on the east side of the state. The Willamette Valley is on the cool side of the Cascade mountain range. The Coast Range provides a little protection from the Pacific Ocean, but this is a cool climate area, with the Pacific Northwest’s infamous rain playing a major role in the success and style of each vintage. As an area, the valley punches above its weight in many ways. It’s a fairly small region (Oregon as a whole is the 4th largest wine-producing state in the U.S., after California, Washington, and New York) but its reputation for quality has gained it more fame than New York, and many would say Washington as well. Notably, it’s also done so without any big, large-scale producers leading the way. Most of the wineries operate on a relatively modest scale.

Pinot Gris. The Willamette Valley’s reputation was built on Pinot Noir, actually, and comparisons to Burgundy are commonplace. And while Burgundy’s white wine grape, Chardonnay, does get a fair bit of play here, a number of producers are concentrating more on Pinot Noir’s mutant offspring, Pinot Gris. It’s a hard grape to pin down, stylistically: there are the fat, honeyed rich examples from Alsace, and the light, crisp, and often rather innocuous bottles shipped over by the boatload from Italy under the name Pinot Grigio. The Willamette Valley’s take often splits the difference, but can vary depending on the vintage or the winemaker’s intentions. Until late 2007, state law insisted they all bear the French name “gris,” but that has now changed, and the name now sometimes provides a clue as to what to expect. The Pinot Gris wines will typically be medium to full-bodied, with a rich texture, honey, spice, and sometimes tropical notes, whereas the Pinot Grigios are generally lighter and more acidic, with peach and pear fruit. This isn’t always reliable, as some producers aren’t changing their labels. Both extremes can show some minerality and floral touches. New oak is pretty much unheard of in these wines.

Willamette Valley Pinot Gris offers flexibility in several ways. The crisper ones are great aperitifs or with salads, eggs, prosciutto, and light fish. The rounder examples can stand up to heavier items, even foie gras in some cases; more importantly, they can often navigate their way from course to course without conflicting with whatever dish comes their way. Similarly, their clean finish and lack of oaky elements makes them friendly to fans of the Italianate Pinot Grigio approach, but they still have some roundness and texture for Chardonnay drinkers, so they’re flexible with your guests, not just your menu.

For lighter style wines, look for Willamette Valley Vineyards or Duck Pond; both are taking advantage of the chance to catch the Pinot Grigio craze without dumbing down their wines—light and crisp, yes, but not simple-minded. Others making wines in this style but keeping the “Gris” on the label include Coleman, O’Reilly’s, and Erath.

For more Alsatian-style wines, look for King Estate, who’ve made a specialty of Pinot Gris for a number of years, as well as Cooper Mountain, St. Innocent, or Chehalem, especially their limited-production Reserve Pinot Gris. Ponzi, despite their plantings of Italian varieties like Arneis and Dolcetto, also make a rich, honeyed Pinot Gris. Keep in mind that 2007, for most wineries the current release, was a cool, wet year, so expect a bit more acidity and lightness than you might otherwise from those wines.