Oregon Riesling History
The story of Oregon Riesling is one deeply rooted in the spirit of exploration and a dedication to innovation. After Prohibition ended, interest in expanding plantings of vinifera and producing wine in the United States blossomed. With the viticulture and enology program at University of California, Davis growing, handfuls of graduates made their way to California’s valleys to put their winemaking knowledge to the test on New World soils.
A few decided to wander north, looking for what they believed to be better-suited territory for the noble cool-climate varietals of Alsace and Burgundy. One such UC Davis graduate headed north, out of California, to Southern Oregon. His name was Richard Sommer. Like many of the early Oregon wine pioneers, Sommer’s vision was to match varietal to terroir and he had a hunch about Riesling and the Umpqua Valley. In 1961, he established Hillcrest Vineyards near Roseburg.
A few years after Richard Sommer’s initial introduction of the Alsatian varietal to Oregon, other pioneering vintners planted Riesling further north, in the Willamette Valley, among plantings of Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot gris.
In the 1980’s Riesling’s popularity was on the rise, accounting for nearly a quarter of Oregon’s total wine production. But as Burgundian varietals, most notably Pinot noir, took center stage, interest in Oregon Riesling suddenly began to wane.
By the early 21st century, other whites such as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris saw increased popularity and so Riesling production and consumption declined dramatically. New plantings of Riesling slowed and some vines where even pulled out.
But then, merely a few years later, Riesling experienced a resurgence. Aside from being a variety that thrives in this region, Riesling has much to offer the consumer. Riesling’s soft flavors and food friendliness make it an easy wine to enjoy. It is both an approachable wine for the novice, as well as a wine appreciated by the sophisticated connoisseur. It is one of the few white wines that can evolve beautifully over time.
Riesling is most certainly on the rebound. With 741 acres now planted in 2009, vintners recognize Riesling as a staple to a well-rounded portfolio of Oregon wines. The enthusiasm for this varietal that once reigned in the Pacific Northwest, is steadily gaining momentum.