February 2, 2005
For most of us, American wines mean Napa or Sonoma. Which isn’t exactly fair, since great wines have been produced from coast to coast for more than a century. In fact, wine has been made in upstate New York since the original 13 colonies.
Only now are we starting to appreciate the contributions of two other rising American stars: Oregon and Washington state.
Many of the wines coming from the Columbia River Valley in Washington and the Willamette River Valley in Oregon are simply sensational. Some Oregon pinot noirs are on par with those of Burgundy.
None of this should come as a surprise, being that the cool climes, reliance on coastal moisture and mountain-valley topography of both states make for long growing seasons and optimal winemaking conditions. A lot of this sounds like Napa, doesn’t it? It just took a while for anyone to discover that these are great regions for producing world-class grapes.
From the end of Prohibition to the early ’60s, only a handful of winemakers operated in Oregon, and then it was mostly other fruit-based wines like from pears and berries. Some native grape varieties like zinfandel were experimented with, but with little success. Once European varieties were planted, such as pinot noir, pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon and riesling, quality took hold.
In Oregon, recent growth has been explosive. Statewide, 78 wineries were operating in 1992. Now there are more than 250 working with grapes from 13,400 acres, according to the Oregon Wine Board.
In Washington, the story is comparable but on a larger scale. The state boasts roughly 250 wineries but nearly twice the acreage at 26,000, according to the state winegrowers association. The dominant varieties differ in Washington. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah are the top reds, while chardonnay and riesling are grown and bottled the most.
There are so many great wines coming from both states, it’s difficult to list them all in this space. However, some favorites from Oregon are King Estate, Argyle and Parducci. King’s medium-bodied pinot gris is a step up from all the watery ones out there with its bright peach, citrus and nut flavors. Parducci’s pinot noir is a natural pairing for salmon, while Argyle’s pinot noir can take on weightier pork dishes. (Easter is on the way.)
From Washington, several big names immediately come to mind: The Hogue family of good-value wines, sparklers from Domaine Ste. Michelle, and widely available Columbia Crest. You could literally drink from these three companies and have every variety and style of wine covered. Take the "made in . . ." philosophy and never stray from Washington. I’m guessing we have a few transplants in the East Valley who wouldn’t mind sipping only wines from their home state.
The Hogue 2002 cabernet sauvignon in particular is a good buy at $8, with its rich black cherry and spicy earthiness made softer with addition of merlot, Lemberger and syrah. This is a wine for grilled sausages and veggies.
Above all else, these wines lend a certain exotic flavor to our everyday sipping, and make for good conversation pieces when entertaining. Wines from Oregon and Washington might be the new kids on the block, but their quality all but ensures that they will be the apple of our eye for years to come.
Learn more about up-and-coming California wine region Paso Robles during a tasting and discussion 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Meet with area winemakers, sample wines and discover this new darling of the state’s central coast. $45. Tickets available at AJ’s Fine Foods. Information: (480) 705-0197.