There is a belief among wine cognoscenti that grape vines must suffer before they can produce great wines. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, not only does that happen, but everyone in the wine business undergoes an annual pain called, “The Harvest.” Is Mother Nature going to be good to us, or will we be left to our own devices and suffer unruly weather? Unlike other regions in the world, such as Australia and the Napa Valley in California, the Willamette Valley proves unpredictable, and provides vintners with unhappy grapes from difficult vintages. While all wine growing regions suffer good and bad years, Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, just like the varietal in Burgundy, paints a picture of extreme variance.
It seems to me that Oregon Pinot Noir wines are becoming more and more popular everyday. Larger wine companies are taking interest and buying up properties that were once thought of as novelty. Foley Family Wines recently purchased the Four Graces Winery, following the in-roads that Kendall Jackson and Louis Jadot laid out with their recent purchases. And this got me thinking… what does anyone really know about the Willamette Valley in Oregon? The pioneers David Lett and Dick Erath blazed a trail and proved that amazing and long-lived wines could be made and grown there, but I doubt anyone really knows what any of this juice tastes like. One thing I’m always tasked with as a Sommelier, is telling people what different wines taste like in addition to what you should eat with them. So I am going to greatly generalize the Willamette Valley and the individual AVAs below, so that when confronted with a list you will be prepared to order a wine you love.
Light ruby to cranberry in color with perfumed aromatics that will also include raspberry, black cherry and cola. The palate seems to have a sweet fruity core even though the wine is dry with spices, cola, earthiness and truffle.
Food Pairing: roasted porcini mushrooms and polenta
Deep and dark ruby color with a rich, round mouth feel and silky tannins; this is a big wine. Big aromas of spices like anise or cloves then blackberries, blueberries, and roses. The palate will have the bramble fruit characteristics with espresso and clove developing into tobacco and cedar.
Food pairing: Roasted Duck Breast with berry glaze
The most age-worthy of all the wines but bordering on a rustic personality; this Pinot exhibits medium-plus to high acid, fine-grained tannins with a ton of earth and chocolate. What fruit you do find will be black cherries and plums.
Food Pairing: Chicken with Morels and Tarragon Cream Sauce
Due to high variance of soil and elevation this is a little harder to generalize but… they are either lighter and have a lot more red fruits like cherry and raspberry or dark cherries and dark plums. They all tend to have a lot earthy mushrooms and brown spices like allspice.
Food Pairing: Pasta with Mushroom Cream Sauce
These are full-bodied Pinots yet very elegant and even feminine in nature. Bright red fruits like raspberry or cranberry with plums and dark cherries notably high in acid and minerality but with a good structure that brings balance. These wines tend to be the bright and fruity Pinots of the Willamette, with a spicy finish.
Food pairing: Cedar Planked Salmon
These are the big boys on the block: the darkest in color and the most tannins, these wines tend to exhibit huge flavors of black fruits and earth. The fruits on the palate range from fig, cherry, mulberry, plum, olive or any combination thereof. The earthy components range from wet forest floor, mushrooms, truffles and dried leaves. Generally referred to as massive.
Food Pairing: Roasted Pork Loin with root vegetables
Obviously, this doesn’t cover elevation, soil components or individual winemakers. Every wine is different from year to year, too. I only hope that this will serve as a rough guide to help you enjoy the world of Oregon Pinots from the Willamette Valley. Also: don’t forget the whites and Rosés!
“I just could not spend another dime, I really wanted a wine that my friends and I could just drink and not talk about!” How often do you feel like this? Far too often I am sure. In my wine world, I taste and evaluate all price points and yes my soul awakens when I can taste and savor a glass of Krug Champagne or ponder over a pour of Château Latour – my pocketbook opens just once when those wines come into my periscope. So how about some wines that we all can afford? Where are the great value wines? The trends have been pointing towards Spain, Argentina and Chile, among other areas in the world. I agree those are the usual places that we should look. That said, when value-hunting, looking in unlikely places can often yield incredible discoveries. I have stumbled across three unlikely places for superb values under $15.00. Let’s take a look at Australia, Italy and the USA.
For two decades Australia has been lying in wait to be re-discovered. A star in the 1990’s this multi-faceted viticultural area has been fluttering in space. This was the country that had brought Shiraz (aka: Syrah) to the fore only to become mired in a “cheap” wine mode. Most recently the Aussies have made incredibly fine wines in all price ranges. The 2011 Wild Oats Shiraz drinks exceptionally well. Supported by some subtle sweet tannins for texture, this wine delivers its ripe fruit flavors all the way through its finish. Yes, this is one of the world’s best bargains in fine red wines.
When wine drinkers hear of Tuscany, they think of Chianti. As one of the world’s most revered regions, this area has found its sweet spot in the $20 to $40 range, but every once-in-a-while, one can uncover a super bargain and that is just what the 2010 Borgo Scopeto Chianti Classico offers. Decidedly sassy and true-to-the-region, this wine plays nicely into the hands of those that want to save a few $$$’s.
One area that one never hears of in the value camp is the USA and how about Oregon, no way! The 2013 Acrobat Pinot Gris is so succulently good. Plenty of ripe fruit and nice acidity, this wine outplays many wines in the $20+ range.
While the expensive and exotic marquis wines get all the ink and a few regions in the world have gained the reputation for their “great wine values,” the best values are often found in the most unlikely of places. As a wine retail veteran of 40+ years, I have learn that deals can show up from anywhere in the world. If you are like me (a bargain hunter) let the world be your oyster. Remember the best pearls are often found after the dirt has been washed away.
I am so incredibly excited! About what, you ask? The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noirs, a vintage the Wine Spectator called, “Ideal conditions produced generous wines; not over the top.” The magazine rated the vintage 92-95 points. I am on a mission to taste 50 or more of the current releases from some of the best wineries in the state. This process will take a couple of months. I will have a full report by the first of July. The following wineries are among my hit list: A to Z Wineworks, Adelsheim, Argyle, Chaehalem, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, King Estate, Ponzi, Rainstorm, RouteStock and Seven Hills Winery. I have a few others that I will include as well. So what about recent vintages?
Oregon is one of the wine world’s most marginal growing regions. Over the past four decades, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris have been the stars, especially in the Willamette Valley. Even adding to the fun are the growers and vintners themselves. If any of you have ever spent quality time with these folks you will have learned that they can be cagey, cantankerous and collaborative. If you are not into it, they won’t even acknowledge your presence (I am only kidding here). But one thing that is undeniable is that the Oregon wine folks are super passionate about what they do. The result is: they live in a growing region that is reserve for the strongest souls in the wine biz. Potentially, the Willamette Valley can have some really difficult vintages. Hearts are anxious and spirits are strong as each harvest comes into view.
I have tasted some 2010’s and 2011’s and there are so many very good wines. The 2011’s are by and large a bit leaner and reticent of recent years. As I begin to taste the 2012’s I am really liking them. The first few have come across a pleasingly plump, yet nicely balanced. Yes, this promises to be a vintage to remember. Seems those guys at the Wine Spectator are very much on target! My current favorite for all to try is the 2012 Argyle. The wine is so pretty and ready to enjoy. This wine is a precursor of what is to come. Stay tuned, you may even be able to forget about Burgundy for a while… Well, maybe not. For the time being, 2012 Oregon Pinots will be the envy of the marketplace. By the way, May is Oregon Wine Month, wouldn’t this be a great way to celebrate?
Our wine alert today is the Cristom 2008 Mt. Jefferson Cuvee Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley of Oregon. If you haven’t heard, the 2008 vintage in Oregon for Pinot Noir is, as the New York Times stated, superb. As is this wine! You can read more about the wine and winery on our website, or watch our tasting video below. And as a special treat, here are a few questions we were able to ask the very talented Cristom winemaker, Steve Doerner.
Q: Before coming to Cristom, you worked in California wine country. What are some of the main differences you see in winemaking in Oregon vs. California?
A: Well, it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been in California so I’m not sure I’m even qualified to answer this question any longer – a lot has changed in both places in both vineyards and wineries. But if I had to answer in a general way I would say that because of a higher degree of vintage variation in Oregon the winemaking has to be a bit more adaptive. For example, adding acid verses chaptalizing are at opposite sides of a spectrum. You hope you don’t have to do either but in some vintages we do one or the other, where as in California not only is chaptalizing illegal but it would rarely be necessary if it were not.
Q: What do you find most challenging about working with Pinot Noir?
A: Pinot Noir is very transparent – it reflects what is done to it in both the vineyard and the winery more than most varieties. Because of this it doesn’t hide any errors made as well as some varieties can. I try to mitigate this by doing as little as possible in the winery so that what the wine is reflecting is coming mostly from the vineyard and the particular season in which it was grown. In that sense I don’t find it as challenging as it’s reputation. We just try to grow and obtain the best grapes possible and then get out of the way.
Q: What did you think about the 2008 vintage of Pinot Noir in Oregon?
A: It was a great vintage but enough has already been said about it that I think I can defer to others – it really doesn’t need any more hype.
Q: Can you describe the essence of Oregon Pinot Noir in one or two sentences?
A: In general Oregon Pinot Noir seems to have a great balance between fresh fruit, lively acidity and a touch of earthy complexity.