Willamette Valley’s Unusual Suspects

SaltAt the end of February, I sipped my way through Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The region loves to bill itself as sort of a New World Burgundy, meaning they grow Burgundian varietals like Pinot noir and Chardonnay in a climate and latitude similar to Burgundy, France. While I tasted a great deal of Pinot noirs and more than 50 Chardonnays (at the annual Oregon Chardonnay Celebration on February 25), many Oregon wineries are trying to stand out by producing unexpected varietals like Grüner Veltliner, Blaufrankisch, and a whole smattering of “other Pinots” including Pinot blanc, Pinot meunier, and white Pinot noir. I even tasted varietals I normally associate with Washington wine country like Syrah and Riesling. Here are some notes on the “unusual suspects.”

St. Innocent Winery 2014 Freedom Hill Pinot Blanc
(Willamette Valley AVA; $22)
Mark Vlossak’s winemaking philosophy is that a wine should be site-specific and pair well with food. This Pinot blanc comes from a vineyard with a marine sediment base in a vineyard basted by ocean air flowing through the Van Duzer Corridor. It smells of sweet tree fruit like peaches and pears, has a luscious round mouth feel and carries a slight salinity over the palate. It would be a perfect partner to scallops and could hold up nicely to spicy food.

Honey-JarJohan Vineyards 2013 Blaufränkisch
(Willamette Valley; $36)
This Austrian varietal is estate-grown at this certified biodynamic winery, grafted onto Grüner Veltliner rootstock. Inky dark in color with a smoky nose and hints of violet and citrus zest, the wine is spicy and robust through the palate with dark cherry and ginger. This one begs to be paired with game like venison and other meaty dishes.

Left Coast Cellars 2015 Queen Bee Bubbly
(Willamette Valley; $36)
They like to go the extra mile at Left Coast Cellars – they have an inoculated truffle orchard that is going to sprout Perigord black diamonds any day now, there’s an awesome green-tiled wood-fired pizza oven onsite, and they keep 35 beehives on the property. Since sparkling wine usually receives its sparkles from a secondary fermentation in the bottle thanks to a sugar-based dosage, Left Coast decided to use their estate honey. Additionally, the yeast has been left in the bottle which helps give the wine a beautiful apple-pear nose with a subtle honey flavor on the palate. And – surprise! – this nearly clear wine is made with Pinot noir.

GrapefruitArcane Cellars 2015 Grüner Veltliner
(Willamette Valley; $22)
Lean and grassy, this example of the Austrian varietal exhibits lime, grapefruit, and apricot notes. It ends with big acidity and some residual effervescence. Drink it alongside a plate of oysters on the half shell.

Johan Vineyards 2014 Grüner Veltliner
(Willamette Valley; $24)
Johan’s version of GV is richer and racier. Pepper and juicy apples on the nose, green apple, pineapple, and Meyer lemon waking up the palate. Again, seafood is a natural pairing, but this would also go well with stinky cheese or save it for the Thanksgiving table.

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