A bin of pinot gris grapes harvested in the north Willamette Valley rests before being crushed by Luisa Ponzi and her team at Ponzi Vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Ponzi Vineyards)

A bin of pinot gris grapes harvested in the north Willamette Valley rests before being crushed by Luisa Ponzi and her team at Ponzi Vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Ponzi Vineyards)

Northwest Wine: Pinot gris remains Oregon’s flagship white

The grapes were first planted in Oregon by Northwest wine pioneer David Lett in 1965.

We all know Oregon’s signature red grape is pinot noir. For many vintages, the state’s signature white has been pinot gris.

It might seem a curious choice to some. While the two grapes are genetically related, pinot noir’s ancestral home in France is Burgundy, where the dominant white variety is chardonnay. Though a bit of pinot gris is grown in Burgundy and known as pinot beurot, the pinkish-skinned grape often is associated with northern Italy, Champagne and the Alsace region of France near Germany and Switzerland, where it has been called tokay d’Alsace.

However, pinot gris has been grown in Oregon since 1965 when the late David Lett established the West Coast’s first commercial plantings of the grape. According to a 1992 speech delivered by Lett, he produced just 25 cases per year of pinot gris from 1971 to 1981 for The Eyrie Vineyards. And the University of California-Davis grad traded most of it to fisherman for salmon.

Now, Oregon’s wine industry harvests more than 13,000 tons each fall. It’s more than twice that of chardonnay, while pinot noir dominates all varieties with 53,457 tons crushed in 2017.

Lett, who came to be known as “Papa Pinot,” proved that the white grape is well-suited for the relatively cool Willamette Valley. The resulting wines are loaded with orchard and tropical fruit, all backed with sleek acidity, allowing them to pair perfectly with seafood, shellfish, pasta in a white sauce, pork dishes and hearty stews.

Here are a few delicious examples of Oregon pinot gris we have tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant, or contact the winery directly.

Ponzi Vineyards 2017 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $19: Viewed as leaders in the Oregon wine industry for their work with pinot noir and chardonnay, Luisa Ponzi and her family deserve similar praise for pinot gris, which her family first planted in 1978. Three of the family’s certified sustainable vineyards, as well as longtime sources throughout the Willamette Valley, come together for this delightfully dry yet tropical offering. Dried papaya and pineapple notes are joined by white peach, apricot and pear. There’s a dusting of minerality in the clean and long finish.

Owen Roe 2017 Pinot Gris, Eola-Amity Hills, $21: Subtle and smooth, this unoaked pinot gris from Crawford Beck Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley teases the palate with delicate flavors of lemon, green apple and lime zest, which entices you to keep reaching for another sip. Suggested pairings include oysters on the half shell, caramelized onion tart or crab Louie. These wines also are available at their tasting room near Yakima.

Abiqua Wind Vineyard 2016 Estate Caleb Knorr Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $15: Four decades ago, the Buffingtons first planted pinot gris at their vineyard in the breezy Cascade foothills east of Salem, Oregon, and they opted to name their flagship wine to honor a grandson. This former strawberry field remains a legacy to the late David Lett, who sold the pinot gris cuttings for Pete Buffington’s first vines. The drink is fun and complex from start to finish, opening with aromas of peach taffy, piña colada and Ambrosia salad. There’s some roundness on the entry before the vibrant rush of quince and vibrant lemon/lime.

Panther Creek Cellars 2016 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $20: Pinot gris makes up more than 25 percent of this storied brand founded in 1986 by Oregon legend Ken Wright. It’s now his friend, Tony Rynders, who is helping Bacchus Capital Management to raise its winery’s profile in Washington, where there’s a tasting room for it in Woodinville near Purple Cafe and Wine Bar. Complex aromas of orange, cling peach, starfruit and coconut are joined by brioche. On the palate, it’s definitely Oregon pinot gris with its bone-dry style, driven by Asian pear, white peach and pineapple. Apricot skin and charming acidity provide delicious depth.

Elk Cove Vineyards 2016 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $19: The winemaking team of Adam Campbell and Heather Perkin combined to produce the top two pinot gris at last fall’s Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, including this entry. Much of the hand-harvested clusters were taken from the Campbell family’s original planting, which they populated with pinot gris starting in 1985. It resulted in a bounty of citrus notes, showing off lemon, lime and tangerine aromas with a floral influence of sweet freesia.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com

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