Quite difficult to imagine, most of western Oregon was once the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Over millions of years, extremely tumultuous weather and disastrous geological events, like cataclysmic floods, earthquakes, extreme winds and volcanic eruptions, shaped the landscape of the Willamette Valley's diversified micro-climates, geology and soil. From marine sediment soils like Bellpine and Willakenzie, to volcanic basalts like Nekia and Jory, there's also Willamette, Woodburn and Wapato deposits from the Missoula floods - swished down to the valley via the Columbia Gorge during the end of the Ice Age from Montana's Lake Missoula. And that's not all, the Willamette Valley's north-east facing slopes had silt blown up on to them, called Laurelwood, from the valley floor. All of these historically catastrophic events gave vital, distinctive and brilliant characteristics to the wines of today's Willamette Valley.
Although the effects of soil in wine is a hot topic among geologists, I have personally experienced similarities in wines that have been produced from fruit grown in the same AVA. Oregon's Pinot Noirs showcase a sense of the place where their vines thrive, reflecting their terroir like no other grape varietal. Some Pinot Noirs are more terroir-driven than others, expressing their surroundings with intense, memorable characteristics; such as, these five outstanding Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs.
Iota Cellars Pelos Sandberg Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir 2011 - Iota in quantity (producing under 1000 cases per year), this little winery is far from iota in quality. From vineyard to bottle, Iota Cellars is truly a family-run operation: winemakers Don and Johanna Sandberg tend to the small vineyard made up of six distinct blocks, while Johanna's sister-in-law Lynne Pelos has the vital role of financial and marketing support. The Pelos Sandberg Vineyard sits at 300-500 feet above sea level and has a unique mesoclimate (climate that's influenced by elevation, slope, aspect or distance from large body of water) made up of both sedimentary and volcanic soils with lots of shale, siltstone and sandstone. The six blocks of vines are dedicated to Pinot Noir, separating the blocks by clonal selection - Dijon 667, Dijon 777 (both on sedimentary soil), Wädenswil (sedimentary soil) and two blocks of Pommard (volcanic soil). I tried three of their 2011 estate Pinot Noirs: a 667 & 777 Dijon Clone Pinot, a Pommard and Wädenswil Clone Pinot and their flagship Eola-Amity Hills Pinot (made up of the four clones from all six blocks). Representing their entire vineyard, unfined, unfiltered and aged for ten months in three year air-dried French oak barrels, this Iota flagship Pinot also received an additional twelve months of bottle aging before its release. Beautiful red and blue fruits, like cherries and blueberries, were highlighted by earth and fall baking spices. Succulent, juicy tannins give it an alluring boldness while vibrant acidity rounds out the concentrated fruit characteristics to perfection. Elegant, yet forward and fearless - full bodied, yet graceful.
Hyland Estates Coury Pinot Noir 2012 - Planted in 1971 by four families, the 200 acre (100 under vine) Hyland Estates is one of the oldest and largest vineyards in Oregon. Sitting between 600 and 800 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Coastal Range, the vineyard site is made up of mainly two soil types: Nekia and Jory. The vines that were planted in 1971 are own rooted Pommard, Wädenswil, and the very interesting Coury clone. The actual source of the Coury clone is a bit of a mystery. It's believed that the Coury clone was brought to Oregon from Alsace,France, by a man named Charles Coury - one of Oregon's wine growing pioneers. In 1964, Charles Coury was studying viticulture and clonal adaptation in France and became enamored by a particular Pinot clone which he smuggled into the United States in his suitcase. Some say it was jokingly called the 'suitcase clone,' Coury quickly planted it, breeded it and began a nursery of this own-rooted clone that became known as the Coury clone. The founders of Hyland Estate purchased the vines from Charles Coury and planted them in Jory soil on one of the best blocks in the vineyard. This old vine (by Oregon standards) Pinot displayed similar characteristics (like bold tannins and solid acidity) to other Pinots I've had from the McMinnville AVA. It was beautifully seamless onthe palate - characteristics flowed in perfection from the front of the palate to the finish. Medium in body and super juicy, dark fruits, hazelnuts, violets and earth were highlighted by the bold tannins and peppy acidity that crawled back up the center of the palate beckoning another sip.
Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2012 - The famed Dundee Hills is where the first grapes were planted in the Willamette Valley, and it's home to some of the state's most world renowned wineries. The volcanic and silt soils here run deep, hold water well, and are somewhat rich. Sitting just 40 miles east of the Coast, the Coastal Range Mountains protect the region from the often extreme coastal climate while creating a microclimate that's warmer than surrounding areas, allowing for steady ripening of the grapes. What was once a turkey farm is now a world class winery with four tiers of Stoller wines: Dundee Hills, approachable estate wines; Reserve, blended lots selected to showcase their flagship Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Legacy, single clone bottlings of their oldest plantings of Pinot Noir; and Single Acre, micro-plantings of Riesling, Tempranillo and Syrah. Stoller is a model for sustainability with their net zero energy tasting room and balanced agricultural approach to viable farming. Their Dundee Hills "approachable" 2012 Pinot Noir is the spitting image of the expected balanced, terroir-driven Dundee Hills earthy, mushroomy Pinot Noir. Blackberries, dark cherries, root beer, fresh tobacco and loads of earth flow in silky waves from the front of the palate to the back. Delicate tannins and lively, lovely acidity create a well rounded, truly approachable Pinot that is smooth, elegant and most definitely food-friendly. When wine enthusiasts around the world think of a typical Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, this is it. It's a gorgeous representation of what the land lends to the fruit.