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Oregon Sauvignon Blanc: A Success Story in the Making

Oregon Sauvignon Blanc: A Success Story in the Making

Photo Credit: Vivino

Sauvignon Blanc—you either love it or hate it. For me, with its captivating aromatics, it was one of the first wines that caught my attention. And it still does. Living in a state so well known for Pinot noir, it may surprise you that, over the past few decades, Oregon Sauvignon Blanc has been developing its own storied reputation.

According to the Oregon Wine Board, as of 2018, there were only 69 acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted in Oregon. Just five years later, there’s an estimated 150 acres. According to Nielsen, Sauvignon Blanc achieved 3% in dollar sales growth in 2021 overall, more than any other variety. It can now be tasted at 107 different tasting rooms around the state.

From Past to Present to Future

In the 1970s and ’80s, as Oregon’s contemporary wine scene was continuing to take root, more Sauvignon Blanc than Pinot Gris was thriving in the state. “It’s unfortunate that the reverse is true in such a severe manner at this point,” says Jim Anderson of Patricia Green Cellars. “It’s a terrific grape variety with an incredibly high ceiling for quality in a wide variety of stylistic capacities.” 

Anderson and Patricia Green purchased Autumn Wind Winery and Vineyard in 2000. There was an existing section of Sauvignon Blanc, just a little over one acre, that had been planted in 1990. “To my knowledge, this remains the oldest section of Sauvignon Blanc – at least originally planted material – in Oregon, certainly in Yamhill County,” says Anderson. “We added onto that block and planted another block that, in effect, doubled the size of our Sauvignon Blanc plantings in 2002.”

King Estate Winery, located in Eugene Oregon, is often considered the winery that put Oregon Pinot Gris on the map. Set on repeating what they did for Pinot Gris with Sauvignon Blanc, King Estate has practically doubled their Sauvignon Blanc production since 2018, grafting over Pinot Gris and Merlot in some of their vineyards to meet Oregon’s increasing demands for this variety. 

Ray Nuclo | Photo Credit: King Estate Winery

“Having grown Sauvignon Blanc for over 20 years in Oregon I have long been a strong proponent of the wine; and, when I came on board at King Estate in 2013, I was pushing for us to do something with this varietal,” says Ray Nuclo, King Estate director of viticulture. Given the small amount of acreage at the time, this started out as a small production wine for the wine club and the visitor center – just 250 cases. Establishing new relationships with the limited number of growers of Sauvignon Blanc, combined with encouraging others to plant new vineyard blocks, they were able secure enough sourcing to start a nationally distributed Sauvignon Blanc program in 2018. 

King Estate produced 2,500 cases that first year. They  have since grown the program to 5,000 cases over the course of five years, and became the first Oregon winery to nationally distribute an Oregon-grown Sauvignon Blanc. “We see a lot of promise with this varietal due to the cooler climate in Oregon producing a unique expression of Sauvignon Blanc,” says Nuclo. “It’s more akin to cool climate areas like the Loire Valley in France and parts of New Zealand, than, say, California and Burgundy.” 

A Gorge-ous Expression  

Matzinger Davies has been making Sauvignon Blanc using grapes sourced from Mosier in the Columbia Gorge since 2008. “I’m a fan of natural acidity and tend to make decisions around preserving it – for example picking early, finding cool sites, or seeking elevation. But, I also like tropical flavors, which often need greater ripeness to develop,” says Matzinger. “These two things can be hard to get at the same time but Mosier manages it.”

Anna Matzinger & Michael Davies | Photo Credit: Matzinger Davies

“The Gorge is such a dynamic region, both geologically and climatically, particularly in the less than 40-mile stretch where the ecosystem transitions from temperate rainforest to high desert,” explains winemaker Anna Matzinger. The season starts early but there’s enough heat during the long growing season to ripen a multitude of diverse grape varieties (including Sauvignon Blanc). And the consistent winds up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, as well as the proximity of the river itself, have a cooling effect, which helps retain acidity and keeps the fruit fresh and vibrant.

Matzinger thinks the future is bright for Oregon Sauvignon blanc. With more plantings on the rise and an increase in the wine’s popularity, they plan to increase their production.

A Comparative Tasting

While it’s tempting to measure Oregon Sauvignon Blanc against other famous regions, like Sancerre and New Zealand, Oregon has so many unique growing regions and microclimates, wines cover a range of expressions. 

“This grape can do very well being made in numerous styles, and that’s what we’re seeing in Oregon so far,” says Spencer Spetnagel of Durant Vineyards. “I’ve had the pleasure of tasting bright and linear stainless steel Sauvignon Blancs, to rich and creamy barrel-aged wines.” Depending on where the grapes are grown and the winemaking style, the aromatic profiles range from grassy and citrus-forward to ripe and tropical.

Spencer Spetnagel (left) Paul Durant (right) | Photo Credit: Durant Vineyards

Durant is shooting for that richer style of Sauvignon Blanc. “We pick the grapes so there aren’t too many pyrazines left in the aromatics,” says Spetnagel. “We love to get ripe tropical notes on the nose. We ferment in concrete tanks, French oak barrels, and stainless steel. I also take some of it through malolactic fermentation.” By using these different vessels and picking which wines to let go through malolactic fermentation, Spetnagel gains more complexity in the aromatics and mouthfeel of the wine.

In 2015, owner Paul Durant was initially persuaded to graft over one and a half acres of Pinot Noir to Sauvignon Blanc by Anderson of Patricia Green Cellars. “We’ve fully embraced this grape since,” says Spetnagel. Durant Vineyards has since planted another six and a half acres to bring their total Sauvignon Blanc plantings to eight acres, wines from which will be coming online over the next few years. “We want to get more wineries involved in making Sauvignon Blanc from the Dundee Hills, and help grow the reputation for the grape in the Willamette Valley,” says Spetnagel.

Durant created an event called Sauvage in 2023 to highlight this up-and-coming variety. This inaugural celebration of Oregon Sauvignon Blanc showcased nine producers. Sauvage 2024 will be held on Saturday, May 18th, and will hopefully be shining the spotlight on many more, eager to add this grape to Oregon’s calling card of varieties.

Six Oregon Sauvignon Blancs to Try Now

Division 2021 Sauvignon Blanc “Environs”

Style: Dry White

Vintage: 2021

Appellation:  Eola Amity Hills

ABV: 14.2%

You might think this rich wine is from the Loire Valley, but it’s actually distinctly Oregon. Fruity, with a striking balance of white peach, apricot preserves, and layers of buttery baked apples, the Division “Environs” is balanced out by chalky minerality, star anise, and just the right amount of green vegetal notes you’ve come to expect from a Sauv Blanc. Lush and bold, it’s perfect for any time of year.

Durant Vineyards 2021 Lark Sauvignon Blanc

Style: Dry White

Vintage: 2021

Appellation:  Dundee Hills

ABV: 13%

Delicate and refined on the entrance before ripe fruit takes over your palate. Aromas of grapefruit, passionfruit, and honeysuckle first tease your nose, before filling your mouth with flavors of white peach, lemon cheesecake, and creamy coconut. The finish highlights the textures from lees stirring, while the barrels and concrete fermenters smooth out all the edges for a lasting impression.

Note: Limited supply – can be purchased onsite or by contacting the winery directly

Kriselle Cellars 2022 Sauvignon Blanc

Style: Dry White

Vintage: 2022

Appellation:  Rogue Valley

ABV: 13%

Is it aromas of passionfruit or is it lychee? Maybe it’s both. Either way, snappy notes of fresh lime and grapefruit are abundant in the crisp and juicy Kriselle Cellars 2022 Sauvignon Blanc. The tropical flavors are balanced by the crisp acidity and a hint of creaminess that adds another layer of unexpected complexity. Simultaneously lean yet full of flavor.

King Estate 2021 Sauvignon Blanc

Style: Dry White

Vintage: 2021

Appellation:  Oregon

ABV: 13.5%

Inspired by Sauvignon Blanc from the two regions in the world most famous for it – New Zealand and Sancerre – King Estate Sauvignon Blanc is a uniquely Oregon version. Fermented in mostly stainless steel, with the balance of concrete and neutral oak, Acid hounds will enjoy the mouth-watering acidity that’s teetering on the edge of racy. Bright notes of lime zest, grapefruit, and kiwi immediately catch your attention, while aromas of fresh cut grass, bitter almonds, and slightly chalky minerality keep you coming back for more. A great value at $20.

Matzinger Davies 2022 Gorgeous Savvy Sauvignon Blanc

Style: Dry White

Vintage: 2022

Appellation:  Columbia Gorge

ABV: 12.3%

A surprisingly rich wine without any oak influence, the 2022 Gorgeous Savvy sings with freshness, perfumed aromas, and a nervy line of acidity that gives it its zip and zing. Delicate floral scents of honeysuckle and jasmine are almost in striking contradiction to the tropical notes of guava and kiwi, while the bitter kumquat and tart pink grapefruit dance in the background. With its tremendous depth and purity, it’s way too drinkable at $25.

Patricia Green Cellars 2022 Estate Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 

Style: Dry White

Vintage: 2022

Appellation:  Ribbon Ridge

ABV: 13%

Patricia Green Cellars’ Sauvignon Blanc is made from fruit from the oldest vineyard in what’s now known as the Ribbon Ridge AVA, and oldest plantings of Sauv Blanc in the Willamette Valley. These older vines capture the inherent minerality found in the soil, giving the wine a taste of wet stone. The wine is aged in 1-3 year-old Acacia wood puncheons, adding texture and lifted floral aromatics. Rich with high fruit tones, flavors of lemon meringue pie, pear, and clover honey that play against the backbone of herbaceousness, and deliver a satisfyingly complex wine.