Oregon’s Riesling Revival

Winemakers are fascinated by its diversity, winegrowers love its transparency, restaurant sommeliers appreciate its friendliness for food, and wine enthusiasts cherish it for its approachable smoothness and range in levels of sweetness. Oregon Riesling is on the rise, and everyone from vintners to consumers are taking note.

Riesling thrives in Oregon’s cool climate and is a varietal known for its transparency and ability to take on the characteristics of where it has taken root – absorbing the unique terroir of Oregon’s marine sediment and volcanic soils while adapting effortlessly to the state’s checkered micro-climates. Back in the early ’60s, however, planting Riesling in Oregon was thought to be improbable by the growing majority of graduates from the University of California, Davis enology and viticulture program. But UC-Davis graduate Richard Sommer, Oregon’s originating wine pioneer, rejected the skepticism of his classmates and headed north to Oregon’s Umpqua Valley; he was on a mission to plant the well-known cool climate Riesling varietal from Alsace, among other varietals including Burgundy (Pinot Noir). After Sommer’s successfully established Hillcrest Vineyards in 1961, other pioneers followed – planting Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in the Willamette Valley. At one time, Riesling was nearly a quarter of the total wine production here in Oregon, but now it accounts for just 5 percent – other varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris gained popularity and became the center of attention within Oregon’s growing wine industry.
Now that some of Oregon’s older bottlings of Riesling are being opened, vintners are discovering their divinity for ageability, and an interest and enthusiasm in growing and producing Riesling is on the rise. Riesling awareness activist, Harry Peterson-Nedry, who is also the founder, winemaker and managing partner of Chehalem Wines, explains this recent surge in interest, “Riesling grape growing mirrors the conservative precision used on Pinot Noir; relatively high-tech winemaking that is protective of fruit finesse while being transparent to terroir.” Peterson-Nedry continues to explain the appreciation for the early bottlings longevity in quality and that, “new dense plantings with a full array of clones are the future.”


Peterson-Nedry also explains that Rieslings popularity is growing for reasons such as, the finished styles are mainly on the dry side, “but with a full stylistic range through to botrytised dessert stylings. Many carry screwcap closures. They are food wines front-and-center carrying a finesse, elegance and ageability demanding study, but catering to the hedonist, as well.”


I have personally rejoiced in witnessing many Oregon Riesling producers grasp onto the concept of printing the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) scale of sweetness on their back-side labels, guiding consumers into making the correct decision on their Riesling purchase, based on the style that they prefer most of all. Whether it’s bone-dry or strikingly sweet, Riesling enthusiasts now have an idea of what is under the cork prior to giving it a pull.


Just as I’ve always suspected, and advocated as well, Peterson-Nedry says, “Oregonian’s subscribe to the view that Riesling is where many consumers began to learn the magic of wine, and where sophisticated wine drinkers return to complete the journey.”


I love Oregon Riesling for its unblemished and flawless relationship between complexity, bright acidity and balance. The Rieslings featured in this article are excellent examples of what is being produced in my great home state of Oregon, and I strongly believe they offer us an ample glimpse into the future of what Oregon holds for world-class Riesling. While obtaining that glimpse into the future, we also find out why the winemakers have chosen to make Riesling and what they think makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling.


Brooks Ara Willamette Valley Riesling 2010: Considered a bone-dry style, and one of my all-time favorite Rieslings in the world, the Ara’s focused clean fruit characteristics and undeniable balance perfection between fruit and acid equals pure elegance. Aromas of honeycrisp apple, apricot and lime are highlighted by hints of orange blossom and honeysuckle. On the palate, rich, complex, seamless waves of tropical fruit (like juicy pineapple), flow elegantly from front to back where the lime zest and herbal notes take over on the long and totally palate pleasing finish. 


Brooks Winemaker, Chris Williams


  • Why do you make Riesling? For all the reasons you can make great Pinot Noir in Oregon, we believe you can make Riesling. Unique in Oregon, Riesling, primarily dry in style, is our primary focus for a white wine and has been since we began in 1998. Our own vineyard is one of the oldest Riesling plantings in Oregon, and we source grapes from other historic sites in the region, as well as from new vineyards that show promise of becoming legendary Riesling resources over time. Riesling is what inspires us.


  • What makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling? The cooler climate overall allows for acid retention, while the longer days of sunlight during the ripening phase enhance phenolic development.


Argyle Riesling 2011: Alluring aromas and flavors of stone fruit, pineapple and lemon zest. On the palate, round and lush fruity flavors are highlighted by zippy acidity and a beautifully balanced finish. Crisp, refreshing, elegant and totally captivating. A tough one to set down while enjoying a glass, it beckons sip after sip.


Argyle Winemaker, Nate Klostermann


  • Why do you make Riesling? It is among the most age-worthy wines in the world. Endless techniques and styles to experiment with.

  • What makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling? Long, cool growing seasons which promote beautiful aromatics and flavor at low fruit sugars, while retaining ample natural acidity.


Elk Cove Vineyards Willamette Valley Estate Riesling 2011: Landing pretty much in the middle of dry and medium dry on the IRF scale, this beauty of a Riesling is stone fruit-centric with aromas and flavors of ripe and juicy apricots and Rainier cherries with hints of citrus peel and ending with a bit of flintiness and spice. The mouthfeel is round and lush and the finish has beautiful acidity that give it a crisp, refreshing finish. 


Elk Cove Winemaker, Adam Campbell


  • Why do you make Riesling? The founders, Pat & Joe Campbell have always enjoyed the varietal as one of the ‘true’ great vinifera grape varietals thus it has always held a place of honor in the portfolio of Elk Cove.


  • What makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling? Our belief is that it is tied primarily to 2 things: the soils here, good for both Pinot Noir and Riesling, giving the acid profile needed for such elegant wines and also the climate for a long dry growing season with cool nights.


Chehalem Three Vineyard Willamette Valley Riesling 2011: The pure, focused, clean and concentrated fruit qualities of this Riesling were incredibly outstanding, making it undeniably unforgettable. Lemon meringue pie, orange blossom, tart green apples, grapefruit and juicy pears were highlighted by a hint of star anise. Beautiful mineral accents with a bit of steeliness lured me in for more with each sip, ending with a pleasant, crisp zip of lemon zest. 


Chehalem Winemaker, Wynne Peterson-Nedry


  • Why do you make Riesling? Riesling is my favorite white variety, if I’m forced to choose between “children.” It has, for a white wine, the same characteristics that Pinot Noir possesses–focused, pure, bright fruit, with acid given to it by a bona fide Region 1 cool climate – and a transparency that allows the terroir of site to be reflected accurately.


  • What makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling? Oregon in general and the Willamette Valley in specific have a perfect borderline climate that preserves acidity, gets the fruit ripe and self-selects lower crop loads that concentrate the wine.


Brandborg Oregon Riesling Umpqua Valley 2009: Produced before this area was given its own designated AVA (American Viticultural Area), Elkton AVA, Brandborg produces some of the most beautifully balanced wines in the state. Aromas of fresh pears, apples and lemon zest are dominated by alluring sweet honey nuances. A rich and full mouthfeel from the juicy fruit and honey characteristics are balanced out by gorgeous lemon-lime zesty acidity that crawls back up the center of the palate on the finish giving it a super pleasing refreshing quality. 


Brandborg Vineyard & Winery Winemaker, Terry Brandborg


  • Why do you make Riesling? It’s the best white wine in the world and we have to keep trying to get our distributors to agree. It would be our desert island white if we had to choose just one.


  • What makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling? The climate and variety of soils.


Supporter and aficionado Harry Peterson-Nedry shines with passion and zeal for the Riesling varietal, “Arguably the best white wine – and I’m willing to argue the point personally – Riesling will eventually be the most widely planted variety in Oregon. Mark my words. And stand aside as terroir-driven, single vineyard refined bottlings made by the passionate and technically skilled nail down the other end of the spectrum from Pinot Noir of Oregon wine. The journey is exciting, but the destination is the reward.” 


Original: Snooth – Articles


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