Pinots from the Pacific Northwest
With all due respect to Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, Riesling or the other 65 grape varieties that are grown in Oregon according to the official Oregon Wine website, the Oregon Wine story is a Pinot story. This is not to look down upon what is going on in the Columbia Gorge, Umpqua or Rogue and Applegate valleys or the newly designated Snake River Valley but Oregon’s wine identity is inalienable from Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. When you ask any wine cognoscenti or sommelier about Oregon, these two grapes come to the fore and are the billboard for Oregon Wine country.
The Willamette Valley is the American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Oregon when it comes to these two varieties. Not only is it home to Oregon’s top pinot producers, but its proximity to Portland only 30 minutes away makes it accessible for anyone wanting to visit wineries and vineyards, so it also stays on the top of wine drinkers’ radars. But it is 150 miles long and up to 50 miles wide and filled with a plethora of different climates, soils and exposures. There is no stretch of the imagination that would dare to explain such a large region as homogenous. The wine police realize this as well bestowing Willamette Valley with no less than six separate subregions that are AVA’s unto themselves: Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton District, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and the Eola-Amity Hills. What makes this large area so exceptional for pinot noir and gris is first its proximity to the ocean. The Pacific Ocean provides a cooling, maritime influence in the air that flows through the valley quite often in the form of fog that allows these varieties to have a long hangtime. Pinots do not like to ripen too quickly. They prefer to simmer slowly and develop flavor on the vine over a longer period without erratic or dramatic fluctuations in temperatures. The soils in the valley are complex as we will see but they all have great drainage. And the rolling hills with some mountains provide excellent exposures for vineyard plantings.
Pinot gris does not get the same top billing as its cousin pinot noir, but as a white wine it waves the flag for Oregon. Willamette Valley pinot gris is something that is always vivacious, pretty and refreshing. Rarely is its zestiness covered up with pads of butter from oak. Its liveliness and ability to pair with so many different types of food as well
as its accessible price point make it an easy choice for a meal at any time of day or night. Pinot noir in Oregon is a serious business especially in the Willamette Valley. Pinot noirs that have the basic Willamette Valley AVA presented on the label are typically a blend of many different vineyard sites and can range from simple and inexpensive wines that you may buy only once to wines with real depth and flavor depending on the producer. If you want to drink deeper into the realm of distinctiveness and complexities, you must explore the subregions and the single vineyard versions from the Willamette Valley.
The most northerly of these is also one of the youngest: the Chehalem Mountains. This is one contiguous area with rolling hills based on basalt soils deposited by the Columbia River as well as oceanic sediment. But it is young only in its recognition as an AVA. This area is home to some of Oregon’s first vignerons. Dick Erath was first to plant pinot noir and pinot gris here. A few years later came the Adelsheims and the Ponzis. All these families are now part of the fabric of the Oregon landscape and dare I say some of the winemaking “royalty” of the state. J.K. Carriere is also a name to seek and enjoy with all conÂ° dence in this area.
YAMHILL-CARLTON AND RIBBON RIDGE
The Yamhill-Carlton District is unique because it is sheltered on three sides by the Coast Range, Chehalem Mountains and Dundee Hills. It gets less moisture than any other area in the valley. The earth here is primarily sandstone and sedimentary, which of course drains well. The area’s first vine growers were the Campbells of Elk Cove Vineyards. Pat and Joe’s son Adam is now making the wines and with great aplomb.
Their pinot gris is the archetypal example of the variety in Willamette. It has gorgeous fruit, a sense of balance and should never be too far from a dining table. With six different single vineyard pinot noir bottlings it is truly hard to pick a favorite but for me it must be the Mount Richmond. It has this haunting nose of floral fruit and the palate is nothing less than silky. Ken Wright and Soter Vineyards are also terrific sources in this area.
Ribbon Ridge is different still because this area tends to be drier and warmer than the other subregions. There are fine alluvial soils along with some of volcanic origin. The Ridgecrest Vineyard was planted originally in 1980 here and is the source for some of Oregon’s best Pinot Noir grapes for many different wineries. It is also home to the famed estate of Beaux FrÃ©res one of Oregon’s most hedonistic and perhaps even masculine and deÂ° nitely long-lived pinot noirs.
The Dundee Hills are revered by almost any winemaker and drinker in Oregon. This is home to David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard, the first planting of Pinot Noir in the region. His wine finished in the top three at the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiad! This region has a uniquely rich volcanic Jory soil consisting of silt, clay and loam. These hills also have less fog and frost and are warmer than their neighbors giving the grapes an added ripeness amongst their peers. And these hills are crawling with really good pinot noir producers. Archery Summit whose Arcus Estate is something to behold, Domaine Drouhin (yes of Burgundy fame) whose Cuvee Laurene is pure seduction, Domaine Serene’s Grace Vineyard pinot noir reaches cult status. Erath’s Leland Vineyard pinot noir from a four-acre parcel close to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains is special. It has a beautiful airiness and elegance about it and lacks nothing in flavor. It is a standout in any tasting. Shea and Stoller Vineyard, two of what some would consider Grand Cru vineyards and Torii Mor Winery are also nestled within. This is an area not to be missed when visiting Willamette.
McMinnville is more famous for the International Pinot Noir Celebration held every year, which brings the best Pinot Noir producers from around the globe to a three-day exposition and festival than its handful of wineries. But the areas’ vineyards benefit from marine sedimentary soils mixed with alluvials, and it is warmer and drier because of the shelter of the Coast Range have south and east facing exposures. The grapes in this region are often blended together with other wineries.
The Eola-Amity Hills district is home to volcanic basalt soils left over from ancient lava flows as well as sedimentary rock and alluvial deposits on lower lying areas. Most of the vineyard land here lies between 250 to 700 feet in elevation. Evening Land is a name that you should familiarize yourself with. The wines here are made under the guidance of Dominique Lafon, one of France’s and therefore the world’s great chardonnay and pinot noir producers. Their La Source bottlings of pinot noir and chardonnay are as compelling a new world version as I have had the privilege to taste.
I bet you the next Oregon wine you drink will be either pinot noir or pinot gris. They are world class and distinctive from region to region. It is what Oregon does best and I for one am happier for it.