Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Happy almost Turkey Day to all of my fellow followers of the fruits of the vine! I hope this month’s dispatch finds you all doing well and in the mood to give thanks. Given certain recent events here in the US it may be difficult for some to imagine giving thanks, but since this is not a political syndicate and rather a vinous one, I will set the example and give thanks for the recent incredible 2016 harvest weather in many areas dedicated to the vine. I think the weather in the fall rescued many areas that had tenuous weather from potential sub-par harvests to provide if not a bountiful, at least a qualitatively divine end product. I suppose there is a silver lining in everything. Also, in addition to great harvest weather in many areas, I did not get shot elk hunting which is a plus (unfortunately I only saw one elk despite putting in 14-15 hrs a day with 10-12 miles a day covered on foot… the warm harvest weather that is good for grapes turns out to be bad harvest weather for elk…) and finally I received all of the wine I shipped from France flawlessly and quicker than expected!! So at least when trade tariffs make non-US wine unaffordable I will have done all I can to stock up! Ok that is the last politically charged comment I’ll make, seriously….

I hope that you all had the time to go out and find a few fabulous nebbiolos to try based on last months topic. I for one had a lovely educational review with a couple of our list members in Whitefish, MT at a posh Tuscan retreat. We sampled some ’04 Barolo and ’05 Barbaresco and as expected the wines still need some cellar time! The feedback I got was generally positive (other than the length) on the nebbiolo knowledge bomb, so with that in mind I will try to tighten things up this month and get straight to the point!

This month we will be venturing into a subject that is near (literally) and dear to my wine loving heart… Oregon pinot noir! Other than Burgundy (also pinot noir if you’re keeping track) the pinot noirs of Oregon are the wines that are most responsible for pulling me head over heels into the realm of Bacchus. I have been following and buying Oregon pinots longer than any other wines (I’ve been an Eyrie club member since 2009); partly because of locality and availability, but also because simply put there are some incredible wines being made here!! Let’s get a little more specific here; when I say “Oregon” pinot noir, I mean Willamette Valley pinot noirs, and within the Willamette Valley there are a few AVA’s that really stand out (don’t worry we will delve in!). This area of Oregon in the southern suburbs of Portland is the area I have been able to visit more frequently than any other region in the world. Certainly part of this is because it is not too far of a drive from where I’ve been living the last decade (when you are a Utah native you have to drive so you can bring back multiple cases of wine contraband) and because I have some incredible friends in the area who entice me to return regularly. However, I could have just as easily been going to Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Walla Walla, etc. The reason the WV keeps pulling me back is because many of the wines are stellar. The region overall is still infantile in comparison with European wine growing regions, but there are dedicated winemakers who have very good terroir to produce excellent pinot noirs here. I think there are still some growing pains to come, but in general with the current knowledge, investment, and technology available, Oregon is on a fast track to becoming internationally sought after for its wines.

So now that we know where the focus will be for this month, lets take a closer look at the WV divided into the separate AVA’s (AVA = American Viticultural Area which basically means it’s a specific area that produces wines with a particular distinction and type and is therefore worthy of its own name recognition, the Napa Valley is probably the most famous AVA for example). The map below will give you a general overview of Oregon and then we will focus in on the WV. The Willamette Valley itself is an AVA, but there are several sub-regions that you may use on the label if all of your grapes come from this more specific site.Oregon wine regions

For this month we are going to focus on pinot noir only, (mostly because of the feedback that many of my readers can’t handle more than a paragraph of my precision prose before they lose it and fall asleep; yes I have photographic evidence of one Joseph Thoits falling asleep 6 minutes into the nebbiolo newsletter…) but there are several other varietals that are high quality including chardonnay and pinot gris. We will come back to those at some point, but in general Oregon is pinot country.

I consider Willamette Valley pinot noir to be the best pinot noir produced in America. Oregon does not have a long wine producing history compared to the old world. In Burgundy I visited wineries that had presses and cellars built in the 12th century by Cistercian monks. Oregon’s first winery in contrast, was established in 1965 by David Lett (aka Papa Pinot). He was a graduate of UC Davis and, being a pinot aficionado, decided he didn’t want to set up a cabernet vineyard in Napa so went north. He astutely noted that the WV was in the same latitude as Burgundy and thought that maybe this cooler climate would be an area that could produce pinot noir to rival the great French wines. It seems funny now that there are millions and millions of dollars invested in the area, but poor David initially couldn’t get a bank to give him a loan to start his winery! Everyone told him it was a fool’s errand and that the climate was too wet and soggy to ripen pinot noir or any other grape for that matter. Thankfully for all of us, he eventually did get enough cash to start a winery which he named Eyrie Vineyards after the hawks that he saw frequently in the skies above his vines. The vines were planted in 1965, but he didn’t actually have his first vintage until 1970, and he was so disappointed in the color he named it Oregon Spring Wine rather than pinot noir. However, his fruit and wine improved from there and in 1979 he entered his wine in an international competition with the great wines of Burgundy. The 1975 Eyrie South Block Pinot Noir placed very well amongst the grand crus of Burgundy in that tasting which was a revolution for the area. Robert Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin did not believe the results and therefore decided to redo a tasting with Burgundies that he personally selected. This occurred the following year and the Eyrie pinot placed 2nd! This was a historical victory for Oregon and soon after the Drouhin family was investing in land in Oregon and now has a beautiful and fantastic winery located there in the Dundee Hills. This was the beginning of a now burgeoning wine region.

Enough about the history; let’s get a little more specific about the geology and geography of the Willamette Valley. Please review the map below closely as it shows you the different AVAs of the WV.WV AVAs

The soil composition throughout the WV varies and certainly plays a major role in the wines. While we could go through each AVA and discuss the soil types, I think that is likely to put most of you into a geologic coma and since I realize that not everyone has the level of interest in the minutiae that I do, I will stick to a brief overview: The most famous soil of WV is the Jory located primarily in the Dundee Hills. Jory is volcanic basalt that came from lava flows from the east. There are other types of basalts in the valley, but the Jory is the most famous. It is a reddish brown soil, rich in iron and also with a fair amount of clay. This soil is where in my opinion most of the best wines of the WV are produced (Eyrie, Cameron, Drouhin, etc). The second major type of soil you will find is marine sediment. Millions of years ago the western part of Oregon was under the Pacific Ocean and accumulated quite a bit of sediment from the ocean above. As it pushed up, it retained this sediment as a base. Next you have a soil called Loess, which is basically silt that was moved by wind from the valley floor onto some of the slopes, especially those that are northeast facing.   Finally, as a shot out to my home state, you have some silt deposits from the Missoula floods when the glacial dam on Lake Missoula melted and flooded the downstream areas.

Ok, now that you all have honorary degrees in the soil composition of western Oregon, I imagine you are ready to move on to the actual wines!

Pinot noir is a fickle but beautiful grape. I personally believe that it is capable of making the most beautiful wines in the world (it is also capable of making very expensive, heart-breaking rubbish wines of which I have been the recipient…). I also think that no other grape shows the subtle differences between terroir quite like pinot noir. This makes it fascinating in places like Burgundy and the WV where there are varied expositions and soil types. There are different styles of wines produced in the WV.  The wines in the Dundee Hills tend to produce lighter bodied, ethereal wines with high-toned red fruits, floral notes, hints of baking spices, and driving acidity.  The wines from areas like the Ribbon Ridge and Chehalem Mountains tend to produce a darker, more full-bodied style with darker fruits, a bit more tannin, and lots of spice. Overall the wines are good to drink young as they are usually well balanced and the tannins are well integrated right out of the gates, but they can also age very well. I have had pinots from the WV that are 25-30 years old and are still stellar. They are incredibly versatile with foods (another reason that I really love pinot) as there are styles that are robust enough to pair with lamb, game, or beef and also styles that can go beautifully with fowl and fish and pretty much anywhere in between. One of the classic local pairings is with salmon or steelhead, which certainly can be delicious. For those of you looking for good pairings with your upcoming Thanksgiving feast, a few pinots from Oregon could certainly be fantastic on the table.

Now lets move on to some of my recommended producers from the area. For my personal taste, my favorites wines from the WV come from Eyrie, Cameron, Drouhin, Maresh, and St. Innocent. These are wines of exceptional balance, depth, and they have a level of finesse and beauty that is unparalleled. The wines of Eyrie are ethereal and are the perfect example of power without weight as the wines feel weightless on palate, but at the same time seem filled with energy. The wines of Cameron (which I was introduced to by one Andrea Thoits) are dead ringers for the wines of Gevrey-Chambertin. They are a little darker and deeper with a classic gamy, animale, barnyard note to them that I find fascinating and delicious. Drouhin (the famous Burgundy family) produces wines that are classically styled and fall between the Eyrie and Cameron on the spectrum. They have lovely red fruits, but a bit more spice and tannin. Maresh wines are now made by Jim Arterberry-Maresh (the first 3rd generation wine maker in Oregon) and come from the 5th oldest vineyard in the state. The wines are very reminiscent to me of the Eyrie wines, although they tend to be a little riper and more voluptuous. Finally, St. Innocent (interestingly the only winery listed above that is not located in the Dundee Hills) from the southern end of the WV makes fabulous wines that are aromatically complex, have classic spicy palates, and are fantastic with food. I especially love winemaker Mark Vlossak’s Temperance Hill bottling with salmon.

In addition to the producers, there are many other excellent wines to choose from: Bethel-Heights, Bergstrom, Colene Clemens, Soter, Beaux Freres, Amity, Lange, Patton Valley, Scott Paul, Ken Wright, Brittan, JK Carriere, Evesham Wood, Penner-Ash, Patricia Green, and Sokol Blosser. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but these are wines that I have personally sampled and enjoyed.

Finally there are 2 fairly new wineries that I am very interested in trying, but can’t formally recommend yet. These are Chapter 24 and Nicolas Jay. These two wineries are partnerships with some famous Burgundian wine makers (another example to me that Oregon is truly coming into its prime). Louis Michel Liger Belair is the partnering wine maker at Chapter 24. His wines in Burgundy are reportedly fabulous, but are incredibly expensive, so this new venture in Oregon may allow us to actually try some of his wines. Jean Nicolas Meo of Meo-Camuzet fame is the partnering wine maker at Nicolas Jay and I have had the chance to have some Meo-Camuzet wines that are fabulous. So while I have not personally tried these, if you can find them I would give these a shot also.

I will go ahead and wrap it up for another month, as it appears that once again I am failing at shortening things up. I hope that you all have a great month, are able to spend some time with family giving thanks during the upcoming holiday, and of course, that you pair some beautiful wines with your turkey. I am of course happy to provide other recommendations if you are in need. I am heading out again tomorrow in search of venison and elk for the freezer and to pair with some of these marvelous pinots that I have recommended. I hope you can find some to enjoy!

Until next month…

J. “Jory” Newman, CSW