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  • Unwine'd Oregon 2012

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    ORmain1.jpgWhile Pinot Noir (12,500 acres planted) and Pinot Gris (2500 acres planted) are certainly king in Oregon – or at least are the grapes helping the state garner worldwide attention – there are over 72 different grape varieties grown in the state. Chardonnay (950ap), Riesling (798ap) and Pinot Blanc (160ap) are also pretty easy to find in the Willamette Valley, a region that spans from Portland to Eugene and includes over 150 wineries. The WV was originally planted in the mid-60s and now has 6 sub-AVAs – Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills – all with the main focus on Pinot Noir. Almost every winery produces a Willamette Valley Pinot, which is their first-tier, fairly affordable blend ($24-$40). Once you get into sub-AVA or specific vineyard Pinot, the cost rises quickly ($50-$75 was the norm), but then again so does the quality.

    For those looking for other familiar grapes like Merlot (460ap), Cabernet Sauvignon (640ap), Syrah (530ap), Tempranillo (190ap), Viognier (210ap) or Gewurztraminer (200ap), you'll have to head to the warmer Rogue (120 vineyards/2100 acres) or Umpqua (50 vineyards/1300 acres) Valley's in Southern Oregon. There are over 45 wineries plying their trade in these diverse landscapes that includes steep hillsides and wide valleys, diverse climates from cool and temperate to sun-soaked and arid. You can find it all in these valleys, though you're going to have to put in some mileage to get there. Though not as well known as the wines from the Willamette Valley, many of the wineries found here have been plying their trade for just as long as the WV pioneers. The Columbia River Gorge, which is about 1 hour east of Portland and straddles the Washington/Oregon border, is home to over 1700 acres of vineyards and 35 wineries on both sides of the Columbia River. Though plantings begin in the 1970s it wasn't until the late 80s/early 90s that wines from this 40 mile stretch of climactic diversity began to come into their own. Over 30 different grape varieties are grown here from Rhones to Italians (like Barbera and Dolcetto) to the usual Bordeaux suspects.

    ORmain2.jpgOregon producers pride themselves on being at the forefront of organic/ biodynamic/ sustainable practices both in the vineyards and in the wineries. Almost everyone we talked to from the big guys to the small was attempting to be as non-intervensionist as possible in their winemaking. Wild/native yeast fermentation seemed to be more the norm than the exception here. Perhaps their more temperate weather allows for more predictable results. Vintage plays a huge role here with frost and rain making some type of impact every season. Of the last decade, the highest ranked wines are coming from the 06, 07 and 08 vintages. The 08 being ranked the best with a 95/100. We tasted through many 08s and 09s on this recent trip and the former definitely had more complexity and depth, though were not as pleasurable right out of the bottle. These are wines that need some age. Drink 09s while you're waiting. A riper year, by Oregon standards just means the wines are drinking well already, not that they are overripe. Believe me, as a CA wine drinker, I would not classify any OR pinot as overtly ripe or fruity. They are as earthy as it gets.

    One of the more confusing labeling practices we encountered is that when wineries place their vineyard names on the bottle they are usually named something completely different than the winery. Unlike CA producers, who usually only place vineyard names on the label when the grapes DON'T come from their estate i.e. are sourced; in Oregon we learned that as long as the vineyard is 5 miles from the winery and owned and operated personally by the owners the grapes are considered "estate." For example, Maysara's vineyard is called Momtazi after the family, not after the winery. Torii Mor's vineyard is named Olsen Estate after its' founder Donald Olsen. They found it all very logical, we were perpetually confused. In the end it doesn't really matter. Single vineyard wines are always more special/expensive regardless of who owns them. Just made me feel a bit stupid for asking and discovering it was usually right behind the tasting room. So just don't. Go with the flow.

    Some of the state's major events are the Memorial Weekend in Wine Country and Wine Country Thanksgiving occuring annually in the Willamette Valley; the Rogue River AVA holds The World of Wine Festival in August and Roam the Rogue passport weekends over Memorial Day and Thanksgiving Day weekends; and Oregon's oldest wine festival Greatest of the Grape is held annually in March featuring wineries of the Umpqua Valley.

    For More Information Visit the OREGON WINE BOARD. Here's a handy Oregon AVA map.

    >> CLICK HERE for a list of winery ratings and recommendations

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