Ah, Willamette Valley pinots! They're almost uniformly expressive and vibrant, with surpassingly swell textures and finishes.
And that's before we get to the reds.
Now, of course, pinot noir is king in Oregon's foremost wine region. But pinot blanc and pinot gris are more than worthy queens. And they truly are wedded: The white grapes are both mutations of pinot noir.
But the two whites are quite different from each other. A slight genetic difference produces different colors, gris (gray) and blanc (white). Pinot blanc is fuller-bodied and rounder, with less acidity and more richness, especially when aged in oak.
Both grapes can come across as neutral and even boring if not vinified properly. Thankfully, that's virtually never the case in Oregon, which rivals France's Alsace region as an epicenter for iconic renditions of these varieties.
Which makes sense because of their similar climates: long summer days and cooler autumns, a result of both regions' more northerly latitudes. That's what prompted Oregon pioneer David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards to plant pinot of all ilks in the 1960s.
"The Willamette Valley has a marginal climate for growing [European] grapes," Lett said shortly before his death in 2008. "[The pinot iterations] fall into an early ripening category that matches the end of the growing season here. That means they can achieve maximum varietal flavor in Oregon by ripening slowly, and reaching full maturity at the very end of its growing season."
That affinity is a major reason why Oregon vintners almost always use the French term "pinot gris" rather than the Italian "pinot grigio" (same grape) and sometimes put the wine in tall, thin bottles: to reflect their aim to make this in a more Alsatian style, spicier and with more body and depth than most Italian renditions.
During the decades spanning the turn of the 21st century, pinot gris actually surpassed chardonnay as Willamette's most ballyhooed white grape, and still is holding its own in that realm even as more suitable clones have produced marked improvement in Oregon chardonnay.
Eyrie, now run by David Lett's son Jason, still makes one of the region's best pinot gris, as do such old-guard wineries as Adelsheim, Benton Lane and Bethel Heights and relative newbies Matello, Fullerton, Cardwell Hill and Left Coast. Anne Amie, Ponzi, Elk Cove and Sokol Blosser make dandy pinot blanc (and none-too-shabby pinot gris) and some great blends using these grapes emanate from Brooks (Amycas), Airlie (7), Big Table Wine (Edelzwicker), and Day Wines (several).
Perennial personal favorites include these five with Upper Midwest connections:
Paetra Coast Range Pinot Blanc: From Cretin Derham Hall to Zipps to Germany to Oregon, it has been quite a journey for Bill Hooper. Although primarily focused on riesling, he crafts pure, precise pinot blanc that leans dry but has a lip-smackin' green-apple kick on the midpalate and finish.
Airlie Willamette Valley Pinot Blanc: Sometimes a wine tastes like the best fruit cocktail extant, with waves of sundry flavors dancing through the palate. This is just such a delight, from a winery owned by Wisconsin native and longtime Twin Cities resident Mary Olson.
Coeur De Terre Willamette Valley Pinot Gris: Owner/winemaker Scott Neal hails from the Gopher State, and he knows not only how to wrest stone fruit and melon galore out of pinot gris, but also how to pick grapes when they have the right harmony of acid and fruit. A fabulous food wine.
St. Innocent Vitae Springs Pinot Gris: Speaking of food, everything from pad thai to glazed salmon will cozy right up to this alluring beauty. Appleton, Wis., native Mark Vlossak is a master at creating distinctive, delicious wines, and this is one of his best.
Raptor Ridge Oregon Pinot Gris: One word: yum. The only roadblock to getting to the splendid citrus/stone-fruit flavors of this gem is that you'll want to just smell it. From a winery co-owned by St. Paul native Annie Shull, this is vigorous but refined, somehow boasting both freshness and depth.
That's a hallmark of Oregon pinot, no matter its color or name.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.