Enter the winemaker…
Fifty percent of the quality and characteristics of the Pinot Noir is determined by nature; now it is up to the winemaker to determine the quality and personality of the second fifty percent. The winemaker’s vision, skills, determination and subtleties play a critical role in whether or not the wine leans toward a higher alcohol, heavier, fruit-bomb-style wine or more towards a delicate, feminine beauty. Oregon winemakers tend to favor the latter and spend countless energy coaxing the pretty nuances out of the grape. They love the seductive distinctions and seek to find the ideal balance of the sublime characteristics the Pinot Noir grape can offer with each vintage. As Oregon winemakers came onto the scene, this wasn’t necessarily the trend in New World winemaking. Many New World winemakers were celebrating “power” and doing what they could to squeeze more out of the grape. Grapes were left to hang on vine until the fruit had shriveled to resemble a raisin, elevating the sugar levels and, of course, the alcohol content. The Oregon winemakers really differentiated themselves by favoring the local expression over absolute power and seeking transparency over denseness.
The early Oregon winemaker’s journey did not go unnoticed. Around the world Oregon’s perfect trifecta of Pinot Noir grape, cool climate and rich soil got people’s attention and they knew that paired with the right winemaker, the potential was huge. Thus an influx of established producers and vintners from France, California, New York, Austraila and elsewhere began to purchase inside the Beaver the state and bringing with them the world’s foremost expertise on Pinot Noir. One of the first being the Domain Drouhin in 1987 when the Drouhin family, owners of the most important house in Burgundy, sent daughter Véronique to Dundee Hills to oversee 100 acres. This began an extraordinary Franco-Oregon relationship that continues to this day. Two of the most recent purchases were California giant Jackson Family Wines purchasing 700 acres of prime vineyards in Willamette Valley, and one of the biggest names in the Burgundy, Maison Louis Jadot, recently bought 32 acres in Yamhill.
Not convinced yet?
Pinot Noir put Oregon on the international wine map, and it is by far the most planted grape in the state. We now know that local soil, climate and winemaker have taken the grape to a new level. But what else is it about Oregon that differentiates it from other wine regions? Here is rest of the drill-down:
Clones, Clones, Clones. Prior to 1974 growers only attempted to match grape varietal to climate. So they simply ordered a cool climate variety, and that was it… done. No one thought to request specific clones or vine varieties exhibiting specific qualities derived from mutations. Clones are cuttings made from the original “mother vine” that exhibit key characteristics, such as resistance to certain diseases or desired cluster size, taste, smell, etc. But it was by “blind luck” that Oregon began its pinot plantings with “Wädenswil” and “Pommard” clones that just so happened to have the desired qualities of low production and high quality. Other clones would not have measured up. In 1974 the importation of more clones of Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) came in for potential study including 15 Alsatian clone varieties. Then in 1985 as the result of an international collaboration “Dijon” clones arrived, resulting in a profound improvement, a greater complexity of flavors and earlier ripening times.
Additionally, labeling laws also raised the bar for Oregon wines. Like their French cousins, regional oversight is significant and Oregon has some of the strictest labeling standards in the United States.
Where the rubber meets the road….
There are many fantastic wineries in Oregon and superb, terrific and delicious are words we regularly use to describe the outstanding Pinot Noirs from Oregon’s best producers, and we can talk about Oregon all day long (and practically have). But the only way to really understand Oregon Pinots is to taste them for yourself. If you are not sure where to start, we’d recommend you try these very reasonably priced domestic divas as you begin your journey to discover the wonderful world of Oregon Pinot Noir.
Ken Wright Pinot Noir Willamette 2011
Terrific Wine! Ken Wright has been crafting some of Oregon’s best Pinot Noirs for over two decades and his Willamette Valley wine is no stranger to us. He blends grapes from 10 of his single vineyards, creating a wine that has shown great consistency over the last three vintages. In fact, we feel that there is no better Oregon Pinot in the store right now. A phenomenal bargain!
Elk Cove Pinot Noir 2011
Delicious! Blended from several select vineyard sites comprised of Pommard and Dijon plant material, this shows the softest, most approachable drinking style Elk Cove makes.
Stoller Vineyards Pinot Noir SV Estate 2008
Phenomenal! These vines grow on the slopes of Yamhill, which helps with drainage and to grow a more concentrated grape. Stoller Pinot Noir is powerful with concentrated flavors of plum, black cherry, floral, red licorice, anise and a strong, lingering finish.
Brella Pinot Noir 2009
Superb! Bright and cheery, but nuanced enough to keep the palate intrigued, this well-priced Pinot will be the star of your next dinner party.
Roco Pinot Noir 2009
91 points Wine Enthusiast. This Pinot is leap- out-of-the-glass good. The wine has a beautiful, rich nose of blackberry pie fresh from the oven with a slight edge of blueberry.
Domaine Serene Evenstad Pinot Noir 2008
Oregon’s #1 Pinot Noir by the Wall Street Journal. Domaine Serene shocked the wine community by besting the most prestigious winery in the world, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, in a blind tasting of three wines from each producer in 1998, 1999 and 2000 vintages.