Location: Big chunk of land sandwiched in-between Washington and California
Total Grape Acreage (and Riesling): 20,300 acres (797 acres Riesling);
848 vineyards, averaging 23.9 acres/vineyard;
( Riesling: 2.87 tons/acre yield; $1090 mean price/ton; 1855 tons total)
(statistics as of 2010 harvest)
Number of Wine Producers (and making Riesling): 418 (49+ producing Riesling)
Average Annual Riesling Production: 104,000 cases (66% Willamette Valley)
Predominant Riesling Styles: Dry 40%, Medium Dry 25% Medium Sweet 12%, Sweet 23% (by labels, not volume)
Average Riesling Acidity: 7.6 g/L Tartaric (2009 vintage)
Average Riesling Retail Price per Bottle: $19.75 US (by labels, not volume)
Leading Producers: 49+ Riesling wineries statewide: See oregonriesling.org
Riesling in Oregon
Riesling, more than any white varietal, speaks to place. Oregon’s uniquely cool climate, naturally low yields, and ancient volcanic and marine sedimentary soils give unique character to the wines that the small, family winemakers craft. And Riesling has been an integral part of the modern Oregon wine industry from the beginning in the early 1960s when the UC-Davis grad Richard Sommer moved north and planted in the cooler Umpqua Valley.
Much of the industry is now based in the Willamette Valley, a cooler valley still. Thirty years ago as much as 23% of Oregon’s production was Riesling. Although a much lower percentage than that today due to the explosion of Pinot Noir in the state, there is even more passion and focus on Riesling, plus huge growth over the last decade—admittedly from a small base. More than 40 producers take advantage of the naturally late-ripening, low alcohol, white fruit and flower-accented, firmly but not screechingly acidic character of the fruit from this Region 1 cool climate.
Riesling grape growing mirrors the conservative precision used on Pinot Noir, while relatively hi-tech winemaking is protective of fruit finesse while being transparent to terroir. This is especially true as mature plantings from the prior halcyon days of Riesling are rediscovered and as the ageability of early bottlings is appreciated.
The finished style is mainly on the dry side of the IRF scale, with 60+% Dry or Medium Dry, but with a full range through to botrytised dessert stylings. In a recent tally, approximately 70% of the bottlings carry screwcap closures. Cool Climate, acid, ripe-but-not-overripe fruit, low alcohol, and passionate, small-scale winemakers characterize Oregon’s Riesling. Oregonians subscribe to the view that Riesling is where many consumers begin to learn the magic of wine, and where sophisticated wine drinkers return to complete their journey.
Oregon Harvest 2011
Summary of the 2011 Vintage from One Vantage Point in the Willamette Valley
The 2011 vintage is THE latest harvest on our records, with a 5-day later start than even 2010 which prior was the latest since 1993. In general, harvest was three weeks late, with earliest picks being approximately October 18 and some harvesting of Pinot noir and Riesling made into the second week of November. Despite the lateness, this may be one of the best 4 or 5 vintages of the last twenty years.
The 2011 vintage differs somewhat from 2010 in that we made an ample cropload modestly short with intentional green harvesting like 2010, but without the additional bird-plague of 2010. The 2011 vintage most significantly showed a luxurient ripening season heat ramp-up, the best of the last 15 years. Heat accumulations were very far behind anything we’d seen historically in heat units until the Mid August thru mid October months, when it surged, with 2011 warmest in Aug-Sept and second-warmest in Sept-Oct over the last 15 years. The attached table of degree-days shows the intervals and how much 2011 packed on compared to others of the 15 years. The cumulative degree days for 2011 eventually bested both 2010 and 2008, both very good vintages. (note: this data is focused on McMinnville weather station, so may differ slightly in other regions)
Rain was reduced in 2011 to below average for both October and for September-October, which helped fruit quality. There was a little botrytis especially from early sites, but for Riesling that was a non-problem. There was generally reduced rain in 2011, with less ripe sites faring well during a 14 day early October period where minor rain daily built 1.88 inches in total, and with only 0.4 inches falling during the critical last three weeks of final ripening. See the attached table for rain over the last 15 years.
The cool nature of the vintage means low sugars and low pHs, with acids very nice but not screechy. Riesling may be the exception compared to prior years, with pHs in the sub-3 range and acids 9-12 g/L Tartaric. Sugars for Riesling were 18-20 brix, with other varieties such as Pinot noir at one diverse operation ranging from 21-23 brix (averaging 21.9) and, for post-fermentation chemistries, pHs 3.20-3.70 (3.44 average), with high titratable acids of 6.8-10.2 (averaging 8.3), and alcohols of 12.4-13.3 (12.7 average). Red wine colors at this point seem excellent thanks to the long season and adequate heat for polyphenolic development, although overcropped sites might not reflect this. Some varieties saw chaptalization and some acid reduction has been or will be employed.
If we consider the key factors of (1) late season harvest, (2) lower yields and (3) below average rainfall, most vintages exhibit some of the factors, but only three vintages of the last 15 exhibit all three factors: 1999, 2008 and 2011. This is obviously premature if used to assert great quality to 2011, but is an interesting premise.
In conclusion, the general tenor in Oregon is excited, being encouraged by very little water on anything, with long hangtimes, with low but adequate sugars/low alcohols, and with finally complete flavors balanced by moderate to high acids and very low pHs. As self-serving and worthy of skepticism as it undoubtedly seems, I DO liken this vintage most to 1999 and 2008 in recent years (throw in 1993 if you want to go back aways). It will be an excellent vintage.