By Celia Strong
And, truly, well suited to this week’s wines. We have two wines this week. A white, Pinot Gris, and a red, Pinot Noir, from Oregon, from the same winery, both new. Maybe if I’d said Oregon first, you could have guessed Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but too late now. Seems to me it’s been a while since we’ve had a wine from Oregon. But, these two are worth the wait!
Over the past 20 years or so, Oregon has established for itself an international reputation in the wine business. With more than 300 wineries in the state, tourism is now a large part of the economy. Wine sales from tasting rooms as well as hotels and restaurants and other related businesses — all of it to the tune of almost $100 million dollars a year. Obviously, they take wine seriously. Currently, about five percent of overnight leisure trips in Oregon involve winery visits. There is some resistance to too much tourism, though, from wineries themselves, because they are concerned the state might lose some of its beauty and land best suited for more grapes would be wasted building resorts.
The wine business in Oregon dates back to when the territory was settled in the 1840s. The first grapes were planted there in 1847, but it took more than 100 years before it meant something. During the nineteenth century, immigrants who settled in the territory experimented with different grape varieties. Then, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, an Oregon wine won a prize. Unfortunately, Prohibition stalled the wine industry in Oregon, like the rest of the country, for about 30 years.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when the state wineries “re-booted” themselves and have maintained growth ever since. (They did start out slowly. By 1970, they had only five commercial wineries with a total of 35 acres of grapes planted.).
During the 1970’s, wineries from California and Washington state tried expanding into Oregon but it was thought to be too cold for Pinot Noir to do well. Oregon’s land-use laws prohibited housing tracts from being spread all over their hills, so land well-suited for grapes got planted with grapes. In 1979, Eyrie Vineyards entered one of their 1975 Pinot Noirs in the Wine Olympics. That wine was judged to be one of the best Pinots in the world. And, as they say, the rest is history.
There are several different growing regions for wine grapes in Oregon. AVAs within the state include the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon, the Umpqua Valley and the Rogue Valley. Unlike most other states, Oregon shares some AVAs with its neighbors, Washington State — parts of the Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla Valley — and the Snake River Valley is shared with Idaho.
Oregon’s top two grapes are the Pinot Gris and the Pinot Noir and they are close to making 2 million cases each year. The Willamette Valley is probably the best known of Oregon’s AVAs. It is also the largest in the state with 5,200 square miles and contains most of the state’s wineries (more than 200). Willamette Valley is best known for its Pinot Noirs, but also makes good Pinot Gris, Rieslings and Chardonnays. The weather there is mild year round, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. The Umpqua Valley AVA contains the drainage basin for the Umpqua River. It has a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley. And, this is the oldest wine region, since Prohibition, in Oregon. A wider range of grapes grow in this area — Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, of course, but Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gruner Veltliner and others too.
Both of our wines this week are called Rainstorm. Their name comes from the popular belief that Oregon has a lot of rain. They say not so true, but enough to grow great grapes. And, they have Pinot Passion — for both Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The Rainstorm Pinot Gris is made from Willamette Valley grown grapes that have reddish skins with a white pulp. These grapes grow on south-facing slopes on either side of the Willamette River. All the grapes are picked by hand to avoid breaking the skins, which adds harsh, tart notes to the wines and happens pretty easily with mechanical harvesting. The grapes are pressed and fermented at cold temperatures. This lets Rainstorm make a wine layered with flavors and textures. Then, it is aged for at least six months on its lees, but no oak and no malo-lactic fermentation. This Pinot Gris is dry, full of pear and honey blossom flavors, hints of mango and crisp acidity. And a great treat!
And Rainstorm Pinot Noir? This is probably one of the most exciting Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted in ages. This wine is made from half Willamette Valley grapes and half Umpqua Valley grapes. The cool, mild climate of the Willamette Valley gives this Pinot an earthy, elegant style with complex flavors and subtleties. The Umpqua Valley grapes, from that warmer climate, are full of bright, ripe fruit flavors. By blending the grapes from both these regions, Rainstorm has a balanced Pinot Noir with the best of both styles. These grapes are also hand picked, for the same reason, and gently de-stemmed before maceration. Maceration, the time that the juice sits with the skins, is only about a week to avoid harsh tannins. A full malo-lactic fermentation is done and then a rough filtration. The wine is aged in French oak barrels for at least 12 months. All of which explains why this wine tastes like it does. But that first sip, all fruit forward, smooth and soft on your tongue, full of bright cherry, pomegranate and rose flavors? You may not care why it tastes so good, just know that it does.
The Rainstorm label itself is a kind of a collage in bright, pretty, psychedelic colors that represents what makes Oregon great. The label does stand out — just like the wine inside the bottle. So, for $11.99 on the Pinot Gris and $14.99 on the Pinot Noir, we can drink our new wines. Rain or shine, pour some Rainstorm. Enjoy.