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Oregon's food-friendly pinot gris

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By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 1:57 PM

Many Oregon winemakers will tell you their pinot noir is the best wine to pair with salmon. And they are not alone in that contention. Serving pinot noir with salmon has almost become gospel, one of those "but of course!" matches that brook no debate, such as cabernet with steak.

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So let me be a contrarian: If salmon is on the menu, I prefer to reach for Oregon pinot gris.

It is an under-appreciated wine. It is neither the mass-market, typically insipid Italian pinot grigio nor the weighty, massive pinot gris of Alsace, even though it is made with the same grape.

Oregon has developed its own expression of the wine: medium weight, usually with good acidity and sometimes even a touch of residual sweetness. Some wineries claim their wine is "Alsatian style," and that might be the model they are following, but they really should embrace the wine's unique character. Noteworthy imitators have sprung up in California and Washington and in the East, but Oregon's pinot gris remains the U.S. benchmark for the varietal.

What about that salmon, you ask? Pinot noir can work with grilled Pacific salmon when seasonings and hot smoke tame the fishiness. (Even here, however, I might suggest an Australian shiraz.) With Atlantic salmon, which is fattier and oilier - and some would say more flavorful - than its Pacific cousin, and with preparations such as slow-roasting that accentuate the ocean flavors, well, suffice it to say that I have had several glasses of nice pinot noir that tasted downright fishy, while pinot gris tends to cut through the salmon's oiliness and harmonize with the fish.

In fact, pinot gris works well with many foods. And because Oregon's pinot gris tends to be more substantial than Italian-style pinot grigio, it is not the best cocktail wine. It needs food, just about any food other than red meat.

It is also a bargain, with most examples ringing in at less than $20. One word of caution: Don't drink it too cold. Serve it straight out of the refrigerator and you risk masking the wine's floral aromas and flavors of apple, pear and minerals.

The first pinot gris vines in the United States were planted in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1965 by David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards, an Oregon wine pioneer. Lett's son Jason now runs the winery and continues to produce one of the state's best pinot gris. Today he has company, and serious rivals, such as Ponzi, Chehalem, King Estate and others. There were 2,829 acres planted to pinot gris in 2009, according to the Oregon Wine Board. That's a distant second to pinot noir, with 11,523 acres, but well ahead of chardonnay (958), Riesling (741), and cabernet sauvignon (583).

Oregon today leads the nation in certifying vineyards for environmentally friendly farming practices. An umbrella certification, Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine, encompasses organic and biodynamic certifications, as well as Low Input Viticulture & Enology (LIVE) and Salmon Safe certification. The latter ensures that wineries practice erosion and sediment control, integrated pest management and other measures intended to protect the rivers and streams around the vineyards and in the Columbia River watershed where salmon spawn.

Of course, no certification will protect salmon on the dinner table from a hungry diner armed with a delicious Oregon pinot gris.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/dmwine.


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