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Aug 31, 2017
Article by Brian Freedman , CONTRIBUTOR
When I travel to wine regions outside of the United States, I’m constantly surprised by how unfamiliar many people remain—even wine-industry professionals—with the range and generally very high quality of the wines of Oregon and Washington.
Still, it seems as if these states have reached an inflection point of sorts, if the numbers are any indication. According to the web site of the trade organization Washington State Wine, wine production has been growing steadily there, with the most recent 10-year range seeing an increase in the state’s total wine production from 120,000 tons in 2006 to 270,000 tons in 2016. Back in 1996, that number was just 35,000 tons. And it’s not just large-scale producers that are driving this growth. In 2006, the state boasted 460 wineries, a number that climbed to more than 900 by this year.
Oregon is also experiencing notable growth. According to the 2016 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Census Report, “Case sales increased 10% to nearly 3.4 million in 2016, helped along by a 14% jump in national sales,” and the number of wineries grew to 725 from 702.
The uptick for both of these states makes sense given the quality of the wines and the increasing number of high-scoring bottlings and award-winning wineries dotting their landscapes. But there are other factors at play, too.
Craig Leuthold, owner of Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington, explained in an email that, “The diversity of varieties of grapes and the increase in talented winemakers has increased awareness of Washington,” adding that, “In addition, the wines represent a very good value,” with generally “high quality and moderate prices.”
That quality-to-price ratio has been a key to the success of the wines of Washington, as is the range of grape varieties that the state’s producers excel with, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Riesling—varieties that have proven track records on the wider market. In addition, noted Leuthold, “I believe that Grenache and Cabernet Franc are showing real promise in Washington.” Maryhill’s Otis Vineyard Proprietor’s Reserve Albariño 2016—SRP $20— also demonstrates the potential for that classically Galician grape variety in Washington, with lightly floral and white peach aromas giving way to flavors of stone fruit, mineral, and spice.
In Oregon, a similar sense of vinous diversity is manifesting itself. Indeed, the state may be best known for its world-class Pinot Noir, but its Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, and more are also making strides in both familiarity and prestige. (Check out the Penner-Ash Viognier 2016—SRP $30—for a delicious example: White-blossomed flowers, nectarine, fennel bulb, and honey mingle in this vibrantly fresh white.) Still, Pinot is king in Oregon, and justifiably so. “Pinot Noir is here to stay and will be the most widely planted varietal in Oregon for quite some time,” noted Shane Moore, winemaker for Gran Moraine and Zena Crown. “However, I think soon Oregon will also be known as a truly world class producer of both Chardonnay and sparkling wine.”
Moore’s wines embody what makes Oregon so exciting right now. The Gran Moraine Chardonnay 2014 (SRP $45) reminded me a bit of Meursault with its phenomenally complex layers of smoky gunflint minerality, lemon creme, honeysuckle, toasted brioche, baked pear, fennel, and star anise—it’s a blockbuster, and an utter steal at the price. The Zena Crown Vineyard “Slope” Pinot Noir 2014 (SRP $100) is a subtly powerful wine whose impeccably balanced notes of cherry, flowers, licorice, plums, and Indian spices should continue to evolve for another two decades, minimum.
Indeed, I fully expect not just the range of grape varieties but also the various expressions of them to evolve in the coming years, especially as the land used for high-quality vineyards is explored and understood even further. “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface,” explained Moore. “There is so much to discover in the foothills of the coastal range both West and South of McMinnville. Also, the current status quo on upper limits of plantable elevation are starting to be reconsidered in an exciting and constructive way.”
These are two states to keep an eye on in the coming years—the level of energy and excitement in their various respective wine regions is stunning. As are so many of the wines coming out of them.