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King Estate — A Jewel in Oregon’s Crown

November 10, 2009

The beautiful rolling hills around the Lorane Valley south of Eugene may not be as well known outside of Oregon as the Willamette Valley to the north is, with its name made synonymous with the rise of Oregon Pinot Noir, but it’s the home of America’s leading producer of premium Pinot Gris, King Estate.

Unlike a drive through the back roads of the Willamette Valley, where you’ll pass hill after hill of vineyards, the drive down Territorial Road south and west of Eugene is a winding trail along the rims of pine-covered hills. It’s not until you get to the gates of King Estate that it hits you that you’re actually in wine country.

When you turn off the road and catch sight of the winery, sitting like a crown atop a hill ringed by vineyards, you might think you’re in the Loire Valley and not the Lorane Valley. With its square towers rising majestically on either side of the winery, King Estate looks like it could be at home architecturally among the chateaus that dot the wine regions of France.

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King Estate's winery sits atop a hill overlooking its surrounding vineyards in the Lorane Valley.

King Estate is a family-owned enterprise that was founded by Ed King III in 1991. It is deeply rooted in the philosophy of respect for the land, nature, and reflecting that philosophy back to the world in the wine that it produces. On the 1,033-acre estate, this means planting grapes best-suited for the site (Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and to a smaller extent Viognier and Chardonnay), and growing them organically.

It’s hard to imagine what it takes to carefully manage the 400 or so planted acres of vineyards by hand, including canopy- and crop-thinning. But the unique site, along the Lorane Valley’s west-east canyon, allows warm summer days to be cooled by the evening maritime weather that moves in from the coast. This gives the grapes at the estate good acidic structure that provides the suitability of King Estate’s wines to be paired with a variety of wonderful foods.

Charles and I are big fans of King Estate’s Signature Pinot Gris, along with their Signature Pinot Noir. The Pinot Gris has a golden straw color, with aromas of pear and grapefruit and flavors of citrus, peach and honey.  The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks sur lies for five months before bottling. Sur lies refers to a French technique of aging wine with the yeast and grape sediment instead of removing it, giving the wine more complex flavors.

Unlike some of the Pinot Noirs produced in the northern part of the Willamette Valley, which to me tend to reflect more spice and earthy flavors up front, I find the King Estate Signature Pinot Noir and King Estate Acrobat Pinot Noir to be more fruity, with aromas of cherry and strawberry and flavors of cherry, plum and vanilla. Personally, I don’t taste the soft spiciness until the end, along with the silky tannins. The Estate Signature Pinot Noir is fermented in stainless steel and then aged 10-12 months in French oak. We’ve enjoyed their Pinot Noirs with a variety of foods, including Pork Marsala and more recently with Duck Braised in Pinot Noir. (Stay tuned for a blog entry on the duck, to which we sacrificed an entire bottle of King Estate Pinot Noir.)

The chateau-like winery has more than 100,000 square feet of space, allowing all production to be carried out on site, and includes a visitor center complete with tasting bar and a wonderful restaurant.  The estate is also home to orchards and gardens, providing produce and fruit for the restaurant.

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Tracy Donaldson gives us a tour of the impressive barrel room at King Estate.

If you plan in advance when visiting the winery, you can arrange for a tour of the facilities. You’ll be blown away by the sight when the tour guide opens the heavy wooden door that leads from the fermentation room to the barrel room.

Any visit to the winery should include a meal at the restaurant, which showcases the flavorful bounty of Oregon. During our visit, we had a wonderful meal that included a charcuterie plate with estate-cured prosciutto, pork crepinettes, and chicken liver pâté with estate mustard and radishes; Oregon Dungeness crab cakes with late summer melon; grilled onions in a tomato balsamic reduction; roasted smoked chicken with wild mushrooms that had been gathered on the estate’s property by the estate’s executive chef, Michael Landsberg, and sourdough brioche and broccoli rabe.

Besides the wonderful wines made from grapes grown on the estate under the King Estate label, the winery also launched two sub-labels, Next and NxNW, with the goal of showcasing wines made from promising varietals grown in other regions. The winery has long-standing contracts with other growers in Oregon and Washington, allowing it to offer a much broader selection of wines that reflect the unique terroir of those other regions.

Under the Next label, you’ll find a very good and affordable Pinot Noir as well as a Riesling. The Riesling is produced from grapes sourced from the Wallula vineyard in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. For fans of Asian fusion cuisine, the semi-dry Next Riesling would pair perfectly with spicy Asian cuisine or seafood. It has flavors of peach, apricot and ginger, and a wonderful aroma of clove.

The NxNW label primarily showcases wines from the Columbia and Walla Walla valleys, both in Washington, where the warmer climate allows Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to thrive. I’m not usually a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignon but found myself drawn to the black cherry and plum flavors of the NxNW Columbia Valley Cabernet that I had with our meal at the winery. The tannins were soft, silky and lingering at the end, unlike the more muscular tannins that I associate with some California cabernets.

As far as what’s next for King Estate, we’ve heard through the grapevine that they may try their hand at producing sparkling wine. A sparkling Oregon Pinot Gris, perhaps? I guess we’ll just have to wait to find out.

For the many followers of our blog who don’t live in Oregon, take heart. If you’ve been inspired by this blog to try one of King Estate’s fantastic wines, it has a very wide distribution across the United States. And if you can’t find King Estate’s wines at your local wine stores, you can purchase the wine directly from King Estate at their web site: www.kingestate.com. They will ship to the following states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, as well as to D.C.

— Vic

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 10:18 pm

    This definitely sounds like a great destination for an upcoming wine tour. Your description of the wines, the food and the location have my interest peaked. Thank you!

  2. Tina Martin permalink
    November 11, 2009 12:05 pm

    I almost felt like I was there with you! This is a definite destination for Steve and me!

    • vpanichkul permalink*
      November 11, 2009 2:05 pm

      It’s a wonderful road trip! Make sure you stop by Sweet Cheeks Winery on the way too.

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