When I tasted a line-up of Pinot Noir last year that contained only one from Oregon (the winner of the tasting, by the way), I received quite the shellacking from lovers of Pac West Pinots. You can see what I’m talking about here. I love getting this kind of feedback, and love responding to it even more. I knew I had to start focusing my attention a bit more on the great wines of Oregon (and Washington, too). Fortunately, there were quite a few producers more than happy to submit samples, and taking a look at a specific region, say the Willamette Valley, seemed as though it might prove to be fruitful.
In an effort to start setting things right, I present to you eight Oregon Pinots, full of the bright fruit and earthy nuances that set this region's wines apart from their southern siblings. These wines really do have a fiercely loyal following of fans who are quick to extol their virtues. Well, we put them to the test and found ...
Gregory Dal Piaz is a proponent and admirer of a broad range of wines and styles. During his decades of collecting and tasting he has discovered that a wine need not cost a fortune to drink well. Feel free to ask him questions at the Snooth Forums where he regularly engages with beginners and experts alike.
Well, we found that there is a lot to like coming out of Oregon. But first, here's a bit of a primer.
Oregon’s entry into the wine business is fairly recent, though historically there had been vines planted in the state as far back as the middle of the 19th century. The prevalence of Pinot and similar cool climate-loving grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc is much more recent, dating back only to the early 1970’s.
David Lett can be credited with this relatively recent renaissance in Oregon. In 1966, with his wife Diana in tow, David moved from California to the Oregon town of Dundee, where he planted the first Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vineyards in the state. The Letts bottled their first wine in 1970, under their Eyrie Vineyards label, and thus the seeds for Oregon's modern wine industry were planted.
Dundee, a small town about 25 miles southwest of Portland, must have at the time seemed to be quite an unusual spot to start making wine. Back in the late 60s winemaking was much less of the science it is today, and much more at the mercy of Mother Nature. These rolling hills wedged between Oregon’s Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges were, and remain, prone to cool temperatures and rain storms that would scare many a lesser winemaker.
I don’t know what motivated David, but in hindsight he was certainly a visionary. The explosion in popularity of Pinot, and the rush to plant it just about everywhere it is ill-suited to be has led to an ocean of over-ripe, goopy, soupy, candied Pinot. These are about as far from the Burgundian Benchmarks as one can imagine. Pinot in Oregon seems not only to be different, but consistently different, and mostly free from this affliction.
Now I’m not saying California or Oregon Pinot should taste like Burgundy. I’m just saying it should taste like Pinot, and Pinot seems particularly susceptible to losing its identity due to over-ripeness.
The cool, damp, and gently overcast valleys of Oregon have proved to be an ideal environment for Pinot vines, allowing them to achieve full ripeness slowly, while preserving the grapes' unique, if subtle, complexity. As it happened, David’s vineyard in the Dundee hills lies in what is now the central sub-appellation of the greater Willamette Valley viticultural area! Talk about prescient.
The Willamette Valley has proven to be ideal for the cultivation of wine grapes, and the family of Burgundian grapes in particular. At 150 miles long and up to 60 miles wide, it’s no surprise that the valley is home to no less than 6 distinct sub-appellations. No matter the name, all of these regions share the marine-tempered climate that reigns over the valley.
The conditions that many associate with the Willamette Valley--rain and clouds--are only a factor late in the growing season. Of course the final weeks of the growing season are the most critical: This is when a season can be made or lost. The factors that can endow Oregon wines with such balance and elegance--the cool, long growing season--can also lead to disaster. It’s a double-edged sword, but one that has rewarded the risk takers more often than not.
Geographically, the vineyards of the Willamette are mostly on the slopes leading up to the hillsides that form the valley. Above about 300 ft the soils are relatively poor, of volcanic origin, and with excellent drainage. Lower than that the soils are heavily alluvial, remnants of the epic Missoula flood that tore through the Columbia Valley some 10,000 years ago before flooding the Willamette Valley and leaving yards of sedimentary soil below the flood line. These lean, thin soils force the vines to struggle, and the weather doesn't help all that much. The stress on the vines helps to create slow growth, better balance, a sense of delicacy, and rewarding complexity.
So what does that really mean? Well, we have but a small sample of Pinots, but some big lessons can be learned from them.