America’s Wine Regions: Oregon

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30/07/2019 In Oregon, Pinot Noir is king - but there’s plenty more to excite and entice from this special state, says Master of Wine Bree Boskov.

Few of the USA’s regions gets wine-lovers as excited as Oregon. An almost Old-World feeling, with its many small producers and its dominance by Pinot Noir, the most fashionable of all grapes, seem almost designed to appeal to hardcore wine enthusiasts. But it would be meaningless if the wine itself didn’t live up to expectations - which, for the most part, it does.

Bree Boskov understands this better than most. This Australian Master of Wine has experienced much of what the wine world has to offer, but when she first came to Oregon one winter she was smitten. “It was foggy and the fog hung in the trees, and the vineyards were muddy and cold and there were fires roaring everywhere and it was really lovely,” she says. “We were tasting in the cellars and I just sort of fell in love with a little piece of Oregon then.” She liked it so much she made it her home: she’s now Education Manager at the Oregon Wine Board.

What makes Oregon special?

“The growing conditions are unique here. The vineyards are surrounded by large temperate rainforest. It's not a monoculture of the vine yet, there's hazelnuts and blueberries and raspberries being farmed down at a slope, or across the street, from some of the vineyards here. It's only a 60-year-old industry. There's a lot of excitement here. All of the vineyards tends to be on the smaller side and very hands on. There just seems to be more, you know, touch-points with the producers, that the Vigneron is literally in the vine constantly, and then in the cellar, and making their way around to other vineyards and chatting.

“So it's not a Burgundian feeling, but it's not New World wine region, in a sense, either, where it's very large wineries. So for me it's just sort of in between magical place. It's a very exciting place in terms of the climate for wine growing.”

Beyond Pinot Noir, which grapes really thrive in Oregon?

“I’d say Gamay; it's something that is almost quintessentially Oregon in terms of its freshness and almost like a forest-y energy and brightness to the fruit flavors. And the volcanic soils I think really contributes to that brightness of fruit character and energetic on the palette and spices on the palette that comes through. Trousseau, too - and even some of the Austrian varieties are really performing well. Blaufränkisch is just amazing, Cabernet Franc is starting to be planted as well on some of the warmer sites.

“The region has a really Alpine sense to it: when I'm in Beaujolais and Burgundy, there is a sort of an Alpine nudge in those areas as well that I feel in Oregon.”

So will Pinot Noir always be Oregon’s flagship grape?

“It will always be the primary grape. There's definitely room for diversity, and I think we're going to start to see a lot of that. But I think in terms of production, Pinot Noir is still going to be the workhorse variety here. It just seems that it's going from, especially in the Willamette valley, it's going from 80 per cent of planting down to 70 per cent, you know?

“But the rest of Oregon is actually opening up to Iberian varieties, and in southern Oregon you have more of the Rhone varieties. There's a lot more diversity coming out of southern Oregon and out of the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla.”

What sort of flavours should an Oregon Pinot Noir display?

“I would break Oregon down into the flavor profiles of the Willamette valley and the soil types that are found there. It's either volcanic soil or sedimentary soil. So the Dundee Hills have that very iron-rich volcanic soil, and they can just get really lovely, plush, approachable cherry and almost, red Cola, sarsaparilla characters in their pinot noir there. It’s feisty fruit, it’s approachable, there’s tannin. I think you find approachable tannins all through Oregon's pinot noir. And I think that's part of its charm, and why it does do so well in the US market place.

“When you get up to Ribbon Ridge, and more of the sedimentary soils, they tend to be more broad and silky on the pallet. And you lose a little bit of that spice character but you take in a little more ruby-red grapefruit, and floral characters coming through on the soil from the Ribbon region, the sedimentary soil. And then if you're down in the Vancouver corridor area where you're getting that real hit from the ocean winds that come through in the afternoon, that's where you tend to get the more savory styles of pinot noir.”

Why is Oregon a state of small wineries?

“I think it is definitely cultural. People tend to come here and want to do their own little project. And because of the agriculture laws here, agro is focused around basically 20-acre plots of land. And so it used to be easy for someone to come in and purchase a small parcel of property and plant it to vines, and start making wine. And really Oregonians are grower-makers, you know? That's their style.

“In Washington, for example, their agriculture laws are more focused on larger-scale production. So you have to purchase a 160-acre farm there. So that just automatically shifts the dynamic of the industry to begin with. Yeah. And Oregonians are just independent, they're a little wild and this is definitely still the Wild West up here, which is appealing, but can also be frustrating.”