Oregon Rieslings Rival Europe’s Best on Taste and Price

Wine making is a romantic obsession -- a good selling point for an agricultural product marketed as seductive, sophisticated and highly cultured.

Truth is, most winemakers make money by following global trends, resulting in oceans of white wines all tasting pretty much the same.

This is not generally true of riesling, whose archetypes lie in the valleys of Germany and Alsace. Unlike chardonnay, pinot blanc and other white varietals, the grape itself has a very particular flavor.

Rieslings are spicy, brisk, sometimes racy, often sweet, always aromatic and low in alcohol. And while many different regions make riesling, I think Oregon now can compete with the world’s best -- especially when the average price is under $20 a bottle.

A cooler climate than California’s is key to riesling’s excellence in Oregon, where it has grown into a $2.7 billion industry, with 450 wineries, mostly small and artisanal, spread over 17 distinct American Viticultural Regions.

Average winery yield is only 5,000 cases a year, and nearly 40 percent of the state’s vineyard acreage is certified sustainable.

Fifty wineries now make riesling with 797 acres under cultivation, which is only about 5 percent of Oregon plantings, down from 23 percent 30 years ago, after vines were ripped out to make way for cabernet and chardonnay.

World’s ’Best’

Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder and winemaker of Chehalem winery, says rieslings are the world’s “best white wine” and insists the varietal will eventually be the most widely planted in the state.

“New dense plantings with a full array of clones are the future,” he says, “as we investigate sites for epiphanies and stretch styles to palates and foods.”

Back in the 1980s and into the 1990s, Oregon rieslings were not as elegantly knit as they are today. Some are still as flabby as fruit punch; others lack the acidity of New York State Finger Lake examples.

German rieslings, with hundreds of years of development, are still the benchmark, including intensely sweet dessert wines. But drier styles are now justifiably getting attention.

Bottle Labels

The International Riesling Foundation has produced a Riesling Taste Profile based on sugar-to-acid ratios, info that members may print on the label: “Dry,” “Medium Dry,” “Medium Sweet” and “Sweet.”

Here are some of the Oregon rieslings I have been enjoying this summer, with just about everything except a steak on the grill.

Argyle Eola-Amity Hills 2011 ($18)

The 2011 vintage is considered one of the best of the past decade, a cool year with low sugars but good acids. Argyle, one of the pioneers in the Willamette Valley, is best known for its sparkling wines. But this medium-dry riesling is full of tropical fruit flavors and spice, which make it a good aperitif and a delight with an appetizer of honeydew melon and slices of prosciutto.

Penner-Ash 2012 ($20)

Bottled in March 2013, this lighter riesling, at 10.5 percent alcohol, is very drinkable right now. I’d love it to have a bit more acid, but I easily sipped this before dinner with nothing more than some walnuts and pistachios. It also pairs well with shellfish.

Anne Amie Estate Dry Riesling 2011 ($20)

The Yamhill-Carlton district vineyards, dating to 1979, show their terroir with plenty of spice and dry minerality. Better known for their pinot noir and pinot blanc, Anne Amie uses old vine riesling grapes and treats them with minimal processing, keeping yield low to produce a superb intensity in their riesling, along with a refreshing acidity to balance the sugars. This is the ideal wine for trout or any lake fish.

Foris Rogue Valley 2011 ($13.50)

If you love a good, crisp, tangy apple, you might be forgiven for thinking this bottling was full of apple juice. It is absolutely delicious, a very deft balance of pale sweetness with edgy acids. Foris, which started producing under its own label in 1986, is the southernmost winery in Oregon, and its bottlings are clear expressions of the high elevation, cool Pacific terroir, allowing the wine’s components to knit together without complications from too much sun. They also sell a 2008 sweet late-harvest dessert riesling at $12 for a half-bottle.

Elk Cove Vineyards Willamette Valley Estate 2011 ($19)

Elk Cove’s pinot noirs have an outstanding reputation, but I’m almost as impressed by their Estate riesling, which has plenty of aroma, fruit and spices, and at 12 percent alcohol is a wine I’d like to keep around for a couple of years to see if it develops into something even finer. Right now, if grilled salmon were on the plate, this riesling would be in the glass.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on books and James Clash on space flight.