Down South

There's so much to write about Washington wine that we tend to neglect the major contributions to our drinking pleasure made by our neighbor to the south, the state of Oregon. There's really no reason for that, because even the most chauvinistic of Washingtonians has to admit that when it comes to the paired pinots, noir and gris, Oregon has not only a quality edge but a near monopoly in production. This was a somewhat awkward year weatherwise in northern Oregon, where most fine pinots originate. After an intermittently damp spring, a fine, long growing season was abruptly interrupted by rain just as the first round of fruit was ripening, forcing growers to harvest immediately (to avoid spoilage), regardless of whether fruit was at the peak of perfection. Fortunately, the rains were followed by dry but distinctly cooler weather through the end of the harvest, yielding one of the longest picking periods ever. The result: perfectly ripe fruit in many areas, but not a lot of it due to the early dampness. A lot of the information above was gleaned from Harry Peterson-Nedry's harvest report on his Chehalem Winery Web site (www.chehalemwines.com), one of the best sources of general industry information around for northern Oregon. But some of the information in this year's report was surprising enough to warrant a call to Peterson-Nedry for amplification: specifically, his prediction that 2004 will be a good year for Oregon chardonnay and a "stellar" one for riesling. Oregon once before made a mighty effort to take a piece of the chard market, and stumbled badly. The reason, according to Peterson-Nedry: Growers were using vine clones more suited to California's climate than Oregon's. Replanting with the so-called "Dijon" clones, largely due to Peterson-Nedry's evangelism, has produced a sharp turnaround in quality. Riesling is a late starter in Oregon, and it's still grown by only a few adventurous owners. Theoretically, there's no reason it shouldn't do splendidly in cool Oregon—better than in Washington on average, where the hot end-of-summer days can diminish the acid content needed to balance sugars. If Willamette Valley growers and vintners are to successfully diversify into "the other white wines," they need to not only produce good wine but also persuade people to try it. Once-burned chardonnay fans may be hard to persuade. As for riesling, the slow but significant rise in consumer interest for this grape, which many experts consider the finest of all white varietals, may provide a market. "I don't think we're talking about a shift in two months or six months, but in five years time," says Peterson-Nedry. "What we have to say is, 'You like our pinot gris; now try our riesling.'" rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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