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Oregon Pinot Noir: Treasures from a Terrific Vintage

Barrels of wine at the Domaine Drouhin Estate in the Willamette Valley.

For the past few months, all eyes have been on the 2008 vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir.  Nothing gets people’s attention like a write-up in the New York Times – Toasting a Vintage, With Few Quibbles, and when that is followed by an article in Wine Spectator – Oregon’s Natural Wonder (February 28th issue), you can be sure that wines from the noted producers will start flying off the shelves.  All of the excitement around the 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir vintage is well deserved, as these are truly terrific wines from one of America’s finest wine producing areas.  Oregon’s wine industry has been given limited time in the limelight, often overshadowed by California, but this burgeoning region has something very special, delicious success with fickle Pinot Noir.

Pioneering Pinot in the Pacific Northwest

Wine grapes were planted in Oregon in the second half of the 19th century and the industry grew steadily during that time.  Then, following prohibition, the state’s wine industry enjoyed a prosperous resurgence, but this didn’t last and advancement was slow until the early 1960s, when several pioneering winemakers entered the scene.  Many of these visionary winemakers were transplants from California who challenged the opposing viewpoints of their UC Davis professors and were united by the belief that Pinot Noir was better suited to Oregon’s growing conditions, especially those of the Willamette Valley.

Among the pioneers was Richard Sommer, who founded Oregon’s first estate winery in 1961, Hillcrest Vineyard.  Sommer, along with fellow Californian immigrants Charles Coury and David Lett, were the first to plant Pinot Noir vines.  However, it was David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards, who came to be known as “Papa Pinot”.  At the youthful age of 25, with a UC Davis enology degree in hand, Lett moved to Oregon to find the perfect place to grow Burgundian grape varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  He found just that place in the Willamette Valley, in the Red Hills of Dundee, and established Eyrie Vineyards in 1966 with his wife Diana.  Along with pioneering Pinot Noir, Lett was the very first vintner to plant Pinot Gris in America.  In 1979, at a French tasting competition in Paris, the 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir won first place against Burgundian counterparts, a victory that catapulted Oregon into the spotlight as a serious wine region and a producer of world-class Pinot Noir.

The Eyrie Vineyards 1979 win was followed by another triumph in 1980, this time at a competition arranged by the renowned winemaker Robert Drouhin of Burgundy.  This time, the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot came in a close second to one of Drouhin’s Grand Cru wines.  These consecutive, consistent results spurred Drouhin to establish his own winery in Oregon in 1988, not too far from Lett’s vineyards.

Cool Climate Lovers

There are several important climatic characteristics to consider when studying viticulture in Oregon.  First and foremost, it is the dampest winegrowing area in the Pacific Northwest, yet most of the rain comes between October and April, sparing the vines of damage and waterlog during the height of their growing season.  Unlike Washington, whose vineyards are shadowed by the Cascade Mountains, Oregon is completely exposed to the air currents that come off the Pacific Ocean.  This results in damp, yet mild winters and is also the cause of relatively cool summers.  It is important to note that Oregon suffered from a drought between the years 2000 and 2005, which temporarily disrupted the state’s signature wet climate.

Aside from being damp, damp, damp, there is little else that is consistent about Oregon’s weather.  Temperatures during the growing and ripening seasons vary greatly from year to year, which means that the wines are more apt to differ between vintages, especially in the past 15 years.  This talk of capricious weather brings us back to our fickle friend Pinot Noir, which happens to thrive in this cool climate, resulting in some of the best and most complex expressions of the grape anywhere.

Quality Over Quantity

Oregon’s wine industry has focused on quality over quantity, which is why it is rare to see low-priced wines from there.  Trends in Oregon winemaking include meticulous viticulture techniques, controlling grape yields, labor-intensive pruning methods and organic and biodynamic farming.  Many Oregonian vintners have chosen to grow “Dijon clones” of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  These clones produce lower yields and ripen earlier, making them a great match for Oregon’s climate.  Many producers are deeply invested in sustainability and land preservation, believing that organic and biodynamic farming methods are the best way to maintain the integrity of their soils and vineyards.  These conscientious practices certainly show through in the quality and purity of Oregon’s Pinot Noirs!

Willamette Valley AVA

The most important and largest wine region within Oregon is the eminent Willamette Valley.  This American Viticulture Area (AVA) runs west along the Willamette River, on the slopes of the Coast Range, extending for 150 miles from the Columbia River in Portland south to Eugene.  The Willamette Valley is home to over 200 wineries and more than 12,000 vineyard acres, of which Pinot Noir is the crown jewel.

The Willamette Valley enjoys a temperate climate year-round, and although damp in the winter months, the summers are warm with long daylight hours, providing the ideal conditions for growing superb Pinot Noir.  Long days of warm sunshine are followed by cool nights, giving the grapes the opportunity to develop great flavor and complexity.  Within the valley, there are six smaller sub-AVAs, which distinguish the unique terroirs within the larger area.  These AVAs, established between the years 2000 and 2006, are Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton District.

A few fun and noteworthy facts on the sub-AVAs – the Chehalem Mountains AVA has the highest elevations, including Bald Peak, which rises over 1,600 feet above sea level.   The Dundee Hills are known for their highly praised Pinots and reddish-colored clayey Jory loam soils, the namesake of the Red Hills of Dundee.  The Eola-Amity Hills AVA enjoys consistent coastal winds that sweep in from the ocean through the mountains and balance the summer’s warmth. Fittingly, the name Eola is derived from the Greek god of wind, Aeolus.  Finally, Yamhill-Carlton is the largest of all six sub-AVAs, with 1,200 vineyard acres.

Pinots to Purchase Now

Oregon’s 2008 growing season started out cold and wet, a pattern that held through the summer and was followed by late September rains.  Vintners were dubious to say the least, and then, in early October, the sun came out just in time to finish ripening the grapes.  The weather remained warm and sunny through the end of harvest, resulting in beautifully complex and impeccably balanced wines.  With all of the attention the vintage has gotten, there’s no time to lose if you want to add the best of these wines to your collection, or at the very least, try them for yourself before they sell out!  Here are some of our picks from this outstanding vintage:

From the Gerrie family’s 65-acre Willamette Valley estate, the 2008 Cristom Vineyards Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvee is a great bottle to open now.  Layered, complex aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, herbal notes, mint, tealeaf, rose and roasted hazelnut are coaxed from the glass.  The palate fills with flavors of cherry, wild berry and sweet spice, showing vibrant elegance, impeccable balance and an enduring finish.

Paul Gerrie and his wife Eileen established Cristom Vineyards in 1992.  Paul left the east coast and a career in engineering in order to pursue his passion for terroir-driven wines, especially Pinot Noir.  The Cristom Vineyards estate is home to eight different vineyards, six of which are named after family matriarchs.

St. Innocent Winery is one of our favorites…founded by Mark Vlossak in 1988, the winery specializes in handcrafted, single-vineyard wines from prime sites in the Willamette Valley and has consistently garnering praise for its extraordinary Pinot Noir. Vlossak is dedicated to producing fine wines of exquisite texture that echo each vineyard, as well as each individual vintage.  These are excellent food wines, delightful to drink in their youth, while having great ageing potential.

The 2008 St. Innocent Winery Pinot Noir Momtazi Vineyard comes to us from the Willamette Valley’s McMinnville sub-AVA, located on a steep, south-facing hillside.  The biodynamic Momtazi Vineyard is warmed by the valley below during the day and cooled by the winds that blow in off the coast at night.  The resulting Pinot’s are rich, complex and intensely aromatic.

Adelsheim Vineyard is another favorite, an exceptional producer that is devoted to sustainable farming practices.  Founders David and Ginny Adelsheim shared the dream of planting a vineyard and producing magnificent wines in the Chehalem Mountains area of the Willamette Valley and they have worked diligently to make that dream a delicious reality.

The 2008 Adelsheim Pinot Noir is a gorgeous expression of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir!  Opulent, layered aromas of ripe cherry, raspberry, blackberry, violet and roasted coffee bean waft from the glass.  The palate is greeted with full, rich cherry and berry flavors, sweet spice, luxuriantly smooth tannins, and a silken finish that lingers enticingly.

Co-owned by Robert Parker, Michael Etzel and Robert Roy, Beaux Frères Winery is yet another exemplary Oregon Pinot Noir producer.  The partnership’s driving philosophy has always been to produce the very best Pinot from small yielding vines and to really convey the spirit of Beaux Frères Vineyard through their wines.  The 2008 Beaux Freres Vineyard & Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley is a great intro to this fantastic winery, if you haven’t already had the pleasure of trying their wines!

Finally, from Burgundy transplant Robert Drouhin’s Willamette Valley estate – the 2008 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley is a real delight. Youthful and complex, showing notes of cherry, spice and cedar, this superbly structured, elegantly textured and lively wine is ready to drink now, but will continue to age magnificently for another 10 to 15 years.  As head of Burgundy’s renowned Maison Joseph Drouhin, Robert Drouhin recognized the Dundee Hills of the Willamette Valley as being a perfect place to grow Burgundy’s beloved Pinot Noir.  Further inspired by David Lett’s success with his prized Eyrie Vineyards Pinots, Drouhin established his winery and is now joined by his daughter Véronique, whose passion and talent for winemaking continue the family legacy!

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