Why Whites Are On The Rise In Oregon’s Rising Rocks District

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Why Whites Are On The Rise In Oregon’s Rising Rocks District

If you’ve heard of the beloved by under-the-radar Rocks District in northeastern Oregon, it’s probably for their reds. This tiny but increasingly mighty AVA in Oregon has been producing what wine geeks and critics consider to be some of the “most distinctive” and the “greatest wines in America,” the vast majority of which involve red Rhône grapes like Syrah and Grenache. It is the only Oregon AVA thus far to produce a perfect 100-point wine.

But increasingly, vintners are producing showstopping Viogniers and blends from white Rhone grapes like Picpoul, Bourbelance, Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. 

It’s both a matter of terroir—and taste. 

The History and Terroir of the Rocks District 

The Rocks District was first planted in 1997 by Christophe Baron, a French native from the village of Charly-sur-Marne in Champagne. A vintner by training and trade, he visited friends in the region in the 1990s and was arrested by the rocky soil, which reminded him of the ChâteauneufduPape, the Northern Rhône region famous for its distinct wines grown in rocky soils.

While others saw what became the Rocks District as terroir suitable for orchard fruit, Baron saw the potential for great wine that truly imparted a sense of place. 

For years, he toiled alone. 

“I first visited the Rocks in 2004, and I fell in love,” says Steve Robertson, co-founder of Delmas Wines. “Christophe was the only vigneron here and the only person who saw its potential at the time.”

Steve felt a similar pull and moved to the Rocks District with his family to found Delmas Wines with his wife, Mary, in 2009. His daughter, Brooke Delmas Robertson, age 37, immediately signed on as co-owner at Delmas Wines when she saw the terroir; she now also serves as winemaker and director of winegrowing. 

“We wanted to build something with a future, something completely unique, with the potential for growth,” Steve explains. “It’s rare to find that opportunity, and we saw it, we knew we had to.”

What he saw, Steve explains, was cobblestone-rich soil deposits consisting of basalt, a dark, volcanic rock originating from the Blue Mountains. Steve decided that there was an opportunity for his family here, but simply planting a vineyard wasn’t enough.

He decided he needed to create an American Viticultural Area (AVA). 

Using an AVA designation on a wine label helps explain the geographic and climatic pedigree of a wine. It’s shorthand for what’s inside, and the more famous the AVA becomes, the more likely that simple name of origin will cause wines to fly off the shelves. (Wines from famous AVAs like the Napa Valley in California, or the European equivalent, like the Rhône Valley, are often enough to prompt a purchase, whether or not the buyer knows the producer.) 

“I found Dr. Kevin Pogue, a geologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla who knows more about rocks and dirt than anyone,” Steve recalls. “I asked him if he would lend his expertise to the project, and he signed on—with a very important caveat, which ended up being the key to our success.”

Pogue’s ask was that they only include a single soil series when setting the boundaries of the AVA in the proposal. The Rocks District, the only sub-AVA nestled within the 300,000-acre Walla Walla Valley AVA, was approved in 2015, after Steve and Pogue submitted it in 2011—a relatively speedy process for the notoriously laggardly Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the government entity responsible for rubber-stamping AVA approvals.

“They told us our AVA proposal was the finest example of a petition they’d seen to date because it demonstrated exactly why the region was unique and merited its own distinctive name,” Steve says. 

Its uniqueness is its sameness. It is the only AVA that has just one defining soil, the Freewater soil series, derived from cobblestone-rich gravels deposited by the Walla Walla River. The region is entirely on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. 

There are 3,767 acres within the AVA, 640 of which are currently planted to grapes and 100 of which are currently under development and in the process of being planted. 

The Taste and Future of the Rocks District 

Since Steve pushed the AVA through, 33 winegrowers have joined the Rocks District Winegrowers, 52 vineyards have been developed and countless wineries have emerged, many of which—including Delmas, Force Majeure, Rotie and Valdemar Estates—are touted as some of the most important and distinct in the world. 

These soils produce wines with distinct savory characteristics, and while the focus has long been on the reds—especially the Syrahs—there is palpable interest in the whites, from both vintners and wine lovers.

Partially, this trend reflects the notable palate shift from red to whites in general. In 2021, white wine accounted for about 43 percent of global wine production, a rise of 10 percent since 2000, according to the latest report on color preferences from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. 

“As a culture, we are headed toward more whites for sure,” Steve says. “And we see a big future for that in the Rocks District.”

Currently, Delmas has 13 acres under vine, the majority of which is devoted to Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache. There’s about an acre of Viognier, with another acre of two of Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc going in this year.

“Because we only have an acre of Viognier on property at SJR Vineyard, we are currently limited in our production,” says Brooke Delmas. 

But the Delmas Viognier 2021, inspired by Condrieu, an all-white grape appellation in the Northern Rhône, is utterly distinct and completely unlike the rich, floral and overtly oily examples you typically find in the U.S.

Their Viognier offers complexity and riotous hedonism, with notes of apricots, honeysuckle, tangerines, saffron and cardamom. Perfumed and mineralic, you truly get a sense of the remote, wild rocks it emerged from. 

“It is absolutely our belief that the Rocks District is not only a premier growing area for Rhone reds but for whites as well,” Brooke says. 

The Robertsons are clearly not alone. 

While Baron opts to not use “Rocks District” on his label—reportedly due to his disdain for the TTB’s “obsolete” rules—he is widely acknowledged as the region’s pioneer, and he makes a thumper of a Viognier.

“Cayuse made its first Viognier in 1999,” says winemaker Elizabeth Bourcier. “The soil in our Cailloux Vineyard creates Viogniers that are savory, mineralic, salinic. We never use oak, only steel and concrete. We want to capture the freshness and complexity.”

Indeed, this highly ageable Viognier offers concentration and power, with notes of wildflowers, pears, lemon oil and salty crushed rocks. 

At the newly minted Cimento Wines, owners David Wanek and Jeff Bond say they are bullish on the future of whitse in the Rocks.

“We planted eight acres to whites in 2019, and we will debut our first white wine in 2025,” Wanek says. “We planted Viognier, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Roussanne and Clairette. We see the potential for whites on the rocks—the ageability and a very special minerality. We are very excited for the future.”

So are we. Until we can pop the cork on Cimento’s whites—and the many others that will surely follow—we will be pouring out Delmas and Cayuse. 

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