Strangers No More

By Mark Stock

Diversity breeds diversity and Oregon viticulture is no exception. The state’s many contours and climates have given rise to 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and counting. Within these fertile partitions grow grapes of lesser renown but tremendous potential.

Such was the topic of discussion at a recent gathering at Crawford Beck Vineyard in Amity. Hosted by owners David and Jeanne Beck, the meeting revolved around less typical varietals in Oregon, coupled with a brief tasting and insightful dialogue; it was organized for educational purposes for the interns of Vista Hills and Panther Creek wineries.

In between sips of wine, eyebrows raised at some fascinating developments. The Columbia Gorge AVA is busy trying its hand at Tempranillo. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), 13 planted acres of the smoky Spanish varietal rest here as of 2008. The same report lists the Yamhill-Carlton District as having 33 planted acres of Merlot, 22 acres of Gewürztraminer, and even two acres of King Cab. To the south in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, 20 acres of Syrah were reported growing in 2008, amounting to nearly 30 tons of fruit. Six acres of Viognier inhabited the same AVA.

A reported eight planted acres of Merlot occupied the Willamette Valley AVA at large in ’08, eye-opening in light of its love for California-like climes. The Dundee Hills and Ribbon Ridge AVAs each reported two acres of Sauvignon Blanc growing that year in their borders. Still sparse in terms of overall numbers, Sauvignon Blanc is actually planted fairly evenly statewide. Such flexibility could mean heightened popularity in time, especially as climate patterns shift and Oregon’s collective palate evolves.

Pinot Noir is the trickiest to grow and priciest in the bottle. As such, it’s not an easy start-up choice. Mary Olsen owns Airlie Winery in Monmouth, where she tends 32 acres of everything from Gewürztraminer to Marechal Foch.

“This Müller-Thurgau makes it possible for me to make Pinot Noir,” Olsen said, pouring a sample of the refreshing, summery white. “Pinot has a two-and-a-half year inventory, while Müller is ready to go right away.”

The German white boasts a relative high yield per acre and requires comparatively little vineyard labor. And, though Pinot may be the most seductive, why not find creative and tasty ways to support that great experiment?

Olsen admits that these lesser-known varietals are very hard to market. She cites the lack of prestige and press as key contributors to their relative estrangement. Yet, the same pioneering spirit that brought Pinot Noir to Oregon in the first place still exists in many of the state’s vintners. It’s what pulled Olsen away from the telephone industry and into the wine business. And it’s why test batches crop up here and there, every year—the makings of the next big buzz wine.

For now, there’s novelty and efficiency in these non-household names. Airlie’s Marechal Foch is a perfect example, a red sometimes used to boost the color of Pinot Noir. Aged in American oak, the wine smells of candied dates and tastes of red currants. Olsen describes it as having a “cult following,” with people either enthusiastically for or against the Franco-American hybrid varietal.

Youth may provide the greatest nudge to varietal diversity. Oregon is known for Pinot, but only really for a few decades. Unlike certain legendary wine regions worldwide, it’s not totally expected that the Beaver state will simply turn out one or two varietals. We may excel at a handful, but as trailblazers we’ll surely find success in many, many others. 

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.

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