There are some 10,000 wine grape varieties, but one dominates Oregon: Pinot Noir. It’s the undisputed king of the Willamette Valley, but the hegemony isn’t total. Other grape varietals thrive here—Chardonnay and Syrah, to name just two—but they’re minor gentry in comparison. More unusual and exotic varietals also exist, worked on by winemakers like mad alchemists creating new pleasures in the shadows.
It wasn’t always like this. In the ’80s, there was widespread experimentation—perhaps there’s an alternate history where Pinot never became top dog.
“People were trying many varietals just to see what fit in with what was considered a very cool climate,” says Brad Ford, winemaker at Illahe Vineyard, who produces Lagrein, Grüner Veltliner, and Viognier. “The market was mostly local. We had Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay... because those are the northerly grapes.”
But Pinot seemed the obvious fit (advocates point out that Oregon is on the same 45 degree latitude as Burgundy, the cradle for premier Pinot). Now it accounts for 62 percent of wine production, with Pinot Gris trailing at below 13 percent and Chardonnay a distant third.
Oregon, though, is full of independent and tenacious winemakers, pushing the possibilities by planting and pressing a roll call of fascinating grapes—in all, there are 72 varieties grown in Oregon. Some have found homes in Oregon’s other viticultural areas to the south and east of the valley, where they find a more suitable climate. Tempranillo, for example, enjoys warmer conditions and is common in the Rogue Valley. Things become more interesting when a varietal turns up in a marginal region, walking the line between farsighted genius and cluelessness; the intrepid souls at Dion winery (successfully) planted a parcel of Tempranillo in the Willamette Valley.
Most fun are the oddball varietals, the ones with the tricky-to-pronounce names that evoke far away places. Cooper Mountain grows and produces a Tocai Fruilano (also known as Sauvignonasse and Sauvignon Vert, to complicate things), which is pretty rare anywhere on the west coast. It makes for a richer—but still refreshing—alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.
Urban winery Teutonic models its wines on those of Mosel in Germany, so it has always dealt with more unusual varietals to produce its distinctive wines. Its Sprockets white is made from German varieties Scheurebe and Huxelrebe mixed with Pinot Noir, while the Pig and Swords integrates Muller Thurgau and Chasselas with the Pinot.
Other varietals to look out for (with varied rates of rareness) include Pinot Meunier, Gewurztraminer, Tannat, Arneis, Baco Noir and Viognier. Obviously, there’s a robust trade in the unusual, even if production is small. So is Pinot Noir the villain by dominating the market? Winemaker John Grochau, who makes a Melon de Bourgogne, is in the “rising tide lifts all boats” camp.
“[With] the increased growth in both sales and the general perception of Oregon wines,” Grochau says, “the demand for new varietals in Oregon is growing. I don’t think that Pinot Noir is holding other varietals back.”
Brianne Day of Day Wines also thinks oddities can be attractive.
“In the really savvy markets like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco,” she says, “the unusual varieties sell immediately.”
Day’s Babycheeks Roseé of Tannat and Coôt (a term for Malbec), and Mamacita made from Malvasia Bianca sell well everywhere. She finds that Portland, perhaps a little jaded at the thought of another Pinot, is “thirsty for something unique.”
Fortunately for Portland, the exploring goes on. Grochau cites Trousseau and Verdejo as future possibilities in the Willamette Valley. Ford, with an eye on a hotter climate, looks to Eastern Europe for inspiration—in the future, look out for varietals from Hungary, Croatia, and Georgia.
Five More Alt Wines to Try
Jackalope White Cabernet Franc, 2016, $25
I don’t think of Cabernet Franc as particularly unusual in Oregon, but maybe that’s because I’m always looking for them. A white Cab Franc is another matter. I’ll say no more—just go and try it.
Grochau Melon de Bourgogne, 2016, $18
This is the grape that makes Muscadet, so it’s no surprise this is a crisp blend of citrus and minerality with a rounded mouthfeel crying out for seafood.
Holden Vermentino, 2015, $21 from 1856
Sterling Whitted makes lively wines that jolt your taste buds into action. His Vermentino is similar to those from Sardinia: rich, full of character, and requiring plenty of sunshine.
Day Wines Running Bare, 2014, $33
Day Wines’ Brianne Day could field a team of oddballs—Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Viognier (with Syrah!). The Running Bare is a field blend of Cabernet Franc, Tannat, and Coôt that is dark, supple, gamey, and a touch spicy.
Leah Jørgensen Tour Rain, 2015, $27 from Corkscrew
Jørgensen also does a Blanc de Cabernet Franc, as well as a cracking Sauvignon Blanc. This features the unusual pairing of Gamay Noir and Cabernet Franc—dark fruits, herbaceous and savory, it works slightly chilled out on the patio.