Willamette’s Secret Society of Alsatian Whites

The Willamette Valley experienced record-breaking warm weather this winter– spring only officially began last week. Soon it will be time to kick-back outdoors, enjoying a refreshing glass of white wine. Our local wineries can easily oblige us; many are now releasing their 2014 and 2013 vintage whites. These releases can also stir up some confusion—what exactly is a Gewürztraminer? Aren’t Rieslings always sweet? What’s the difference between a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Grigio?

For many Americans, whites belong in two categories: Chardonnay, and not Chardonnay. Many restaurant wine lists reflect this, sorting all non-Chardonnays into a category called “Miscellaneous/Eccentric/Other Whites.” Which is a shame: we overlook the intricacies and pleasures of half of the world’s wines. Luckily, white wines aren’t all a bunch of unrelated ‘randos’, which drinkers must memorize independently. Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer, which grow beautifully and abundantly in Oregon, have a little known interrelation.

They are the three core varietals of Alsace, a wine-growing region in the north-east corner of France, (and for long stretches of its history, a part of Germany.) A winery’s choice to grow Pinot Gris along with Riesling and Gewürztraminer is far from random, as these varietals have been cultivated together for centuries, and thrive in the same vineyards. Finally, look at all the other varietals Alsace makes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Sylvaner, Muscat… suddenly, it looks like the Willamette Valley has more in common with Alsace than with Burgundy. In this light, Pinot Gris is as central to our terroir as its slightly darker skinned cousin, Pinot Noir.

Gewürztraminer and Riesling are distant relatives of the Noirien family, of which Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay are members. An easy way to think about Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer is the Goldilocks and The Three Bears story: Riesling is very acidic, Gewurtztraminer is very spicy and fruity, and Pinot Gris is ‘just right.’ However, this does an injustice to the variety and quality of Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. Riesling has the widest range of flavors, body, and sweetness of any varietal, reds included. One producer can make a bone dry Riesling, with a taste reminiscent of sucking on pebbles, while another releases a deep, luscious dessert wine. Gewürztraminer, on the other hand, almost always expresses crystal-clear aromas of roses, lychees and exotic spices. You would be hard to find this delicious combination in any other kind of wine.

Next time you see these wines at a tasting room, try not to see them as “random” whites, but as an essential part of Oregon’s wine country. Willamette’s Alsace connection isn’t really a secret, but it might as well be: it is very rarely cited. Like Willamette, (and its other French model, Burgundy,) Alsace is populated by individual farmers and small, family owned wineries. Alsace, located just north of Champagne, also makes stunning sparkling wine called Cremant d’Alsace. Champagne method wines are quickly becoming a part of Oregon’s DNA—take a look at Argyle’s line of bubblies if you need proof. However, there’s one major difference between Alsace and Willamette: the cloud coverage. Alsace is one of the sunniest places in France, which helps offset the effect of its extreme northern latitude.

Most Willamette Valley producers make a Pinot Gris, and I recommend you spend a little time with this supreme wine at your next winery outing. Several of the Oregon Wine Education Center’s partner and member wineries offer great examples.  If you’d like to try a Riesling, Chehalem Wines in downtown Newberg makes several, and you can swing by wineries like Ponzi Wines, Methven Family Vineyards, and Rallison Cellars to try their offerings. Archer Vineyard, tucked away in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, makes a Gewurztraminer, and Anam Cara makes both a Riesling and a Gewürztraminer, exclusively from their own fruit from Nicholas Vineyard. Finally, Laurel Ridge Winery truly embodies the Alsatian spirit. Not only do they produce Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris, but they are one of Oregon’s oldest producers of sparkling wine. As they toast in Alsace, g’sundheit!