Unlike California and Washington State, Oregon has historically been home to very few corporate, large-production wineries. With the exception of King Estate, most of the state’s wineries are small and often not widely distributed out of Oregon.
The state’s oldest American Viticultural Area (AVA), the Willamette Valley—located just outside of Portland—celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2013, according to the Portland-based Oregon Wine Commission (OWC). Willamette, along with its neighboring, cool-climate siblings, such as Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton, also account for the best-known and arguably most-distinctive wines that Oregon state produces.
The southern part of Oregon is home to a wider range of varietals, whereas the Willamette and other neighboring AVAs are better known for pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling. The state is home to 463 wineries and nine AVAs, according to the OWC. The latest AVA—Elkton Oregon—was formed just last year.
FLEXIBLE AND VERSATILE
Oregon’s wines are also beloved by operators for their generally higher-acid taste profile and less overtly fruity style, according to Sandy Block, master of wine and vice president of beverage operations for Boston-based Legal Sea Foods. These flavor profiles pair well with a wide range of dishes.
At the 33 locations of Legal Sea Foods, customers tend to seek out the state’s pinot noirs and cool-climate white varietals, says Block. These wines pair well with the seafood-focused menu, he notes. The operator carries seven Oregon wines by the bottle, priced from $39 to $65.
Joe Phillips, a master sommelier and director of wine at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas, who oversees restaurants such as Fiamma, Craftsteak and Shibuya, likes what Oregon producers are doing with pinot noir. His outlets offer some Oregon pinot noirs and chardonnays that work well with lighter dishes and for a variety of food pairings. All of the restaurants and bars that he oversees probably carry more than two-dozen Oregon wines, priced from $60 to $150 a bottle.
“Pinot noir is very versatile, great with lighter fare, assorted cheeses and meat boards, fish, salads and even white proteins,” notes Zach Tirone, general manager/beverage director of the New York-based American comfort food restaurant LCL: Bar & Kitchen. Two of the state’s best-known whites—pinot blanc and gris—are also flexible with food, given their somewhat neutral taste profile, he adds.
LCL, located in the 774-room Westin Grand Central Hotel, is operated by The Gerber Group, which has seven other locations in New York and a handful of international properties. Tirone currently carries six Oregon wines by the glass, most of which are pinot noirs, priced at $13 to $16. The restaurant offers two Oregon reds by the bottle, a pinot noir and a syrah, priced at about $85.
Oregon’s pinot noir has long been compared to that of Burgundy; the price points of pinot noir from some of the state’s best producers carry similar price tags. Interest and investment in the area from the French has been notable: Producers such as Domaine Drouhin Oregon—founded in 1988—have been buying land and demonstrating the similarities and differences of the two areas.
Oregon pinot noirs tend to run leaner and less fruit-forward in terms of general taste profiles. As such, they’re giving the best California producers—from the Sonoma Coast to the Santa Ynez—a run for their money.
Operators are also looking beyond the state’s best-known grapes, however. Oregon winemakers are also “doing some very cool stuff with Rhône varietals: syrah and viognier mostly,” adds Tirone.
Portland, OR-based new American restaurant the Irving Street Kitchen carries a vast selection of the state’s wines. Beverage director Leah Morehead offers 10 Oregon wines by the glass, priced from $11 to $15—some of which are available on tap—and 31 by the bottle ($39 to $148).
With the lesser-known grapes and wineries, it often helps to tell the stories behind the vineyard, Morehead notes.
For instance, she says, the next generation of winemakers are using some innovative production methods. Morehead cites Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards (the son of Oregon wine legend David Lett), who is aging his rosé of pinot noir in barrels that date to 1984, as one of the innovators. · oregon State
The state is compared to Burgundy for both its climatic conditions and abundance of small-family run wineries. It’s known for fun and education-focused events such as Oregon Pinot Camp for the trade and the International Pinot Noir Celebration for consumers.
Major AVAs: Willamette Valley, the state’s oldest and most respected AVA, Southern Oregon and Rogue Valley.
Growing conditions: Cool-climate in the northern part of the state, hotter climate further southern and closer to the California border
Popular varietals: Pinot noir is the state’s best-known classic, cool-climate red; whites such as chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot blanc are also widely grown in Oregon.
Major vineyards: King Estate, Domaine Drouhin, Hillcrest Vineyard, Bridgeview Vineyards, the Eyrie Vineyards.