For most wine consumers, Oregon means pinot noir. And with (mostly) good reason: The state's offerings tend to be first-rate, and were perhaps the only domestic wines that felt no effects from the Great Recession.
But in my book, Oregon's white wines are every bit as stellar: crisp, refreshing and balanced. They're also anything but a poor relation: In 2010 white grapes accounted for 27 percent of the state's vineyard acreage and 38 percent of the production.
These wines show distinctive character, thanks to a cooler climate than California and a soil mix modified by the Ice Age's Missoula Flood, which sent a wall of water several hundred feet high through much of the state.
"It's the perfect storm of climate and geology," said Bethel Heights winery owner Mimi Casteel during a Twin Cities visit last year, "so that producers can make these wines that can't be made anywhere else."
Her compatriot, St. Innocent owner/winemaker Mark Vlossak, cited "the cold nights, which give our wines backbone and acidity. Essentially, the vines have to eat something, and in places with warm nights, that is acid. In places with cooler nights, instead of consuming acid, the vine shuts down."
Perhaps Oregon's most expressive white wines also happen to have "pinot" in their names.
Pioneering vintner David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted America's first pinot gris (aka pinot grigio) in 1966 and later promoted the fact that this varietal is the ideal match for salmon.
Today, what Vlossak calls "the most texturally interesting of all the white grapes" can be found in fine form for $15 to $18 from Bethel Heights, Erath, Anne Amie, Ponzi and Raptor Ridge. For a couple of dollars more, Adelsheim, St. Innocent and Eyrie are worth seeking out.
Pinot blanc, which loves shellfish (and vice versa), tends to be fuller-bodied and more mineral-laden than pinot gris and, alas, a bit spendier. Ken Wright's pinot blanc is one of the best U.S. whites that I have tasted, but isn't available in this and many other markets because its $24 price tag is a tough sell for a less familiar grape.
Anne Amie, Elk Cove and Ponzi make nice versions at just under $20, and St. Innocent's swell pinot blanc comes in at just over that mark.
Like their lesser-known grape mates, Oregon chardonnays tend to be more balanced and less fruit-forward than their California counterparts. "Our climate simply doesn't let us do fat and buttery," said Vlossak, a Wisconsin native.
Ponzi, Bethel Heights and A to Z make dandy chardonnays, while Domaine Serene, owned by Minnesotans Ken and Grace Evenstad, produces world-class chards for $45.
Among lower-profile varietals, I enjoy Bethel Heights' gewürztraminer, Chehalem's riesling, Penner-Ash's viognier and Müller Thurgaus from Anne Amie and Airlie. Some of those grapes are among the nine that go into the always-tasty Sokol Blosser Evolution.
With spring having arrived at such an early date, Minnesotans could do a lot worse than to look straight west, along the 45th parallel, for these exemplars of zesty but hearty refreshment.
Bill Ward • firstname.lastname@example.org
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