“This can’t be Pinot Noir. I’ve had Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills.” This is what Wayne Bailey often hears when people taste his Youngberg Hill Vineyards Pinot Noir from McMinnville, Oregon. It is true; there are distinct differences in Pinot Noir among the Oregon growing regions. In McMinnville, as in the most elite villages of Burgundy, those terroir-driven differences may occur within a few yards. Soil differences are visible in the vineyard and the result is an exciting tasting experience.
McMinnville is home to the International Pinot Noir Celebration. This spectacular three-day event draws producers and lovers of Pinot Noir from all over the world. This town takes her wine seriously. The fine folks of McMinnville, however, treat their tasting room guests as old friends. Family livelihoods are made in these hills, and many owners live on their vineyard property.
“Once you’ve seen the view, you will not want to leave,” claims Bailey. At Youngberg Hill, covered decks surround the tasting room offering a panoramic view of the western portion of the Willamette Valley from Mount Hood to the Coastal Range. Vineyard blocks are named for Bailey’s daughters. The Jordan Block Pinot Noir, from a higher elevation and cooler site, is characterized by dark fruits, earthy flavors, and higher acids and tannins. The Natasha Block Pinot Noir is grown in a marine sedimentary soil that holds more moisture. Vines develop a larger canopy which results in white and black pepper notes in the wine.
Scott Neal, of Coeur de Terre Vineyards, points out that most McMinnville wineries highlight their estate grown fruit. Scott and Lisa Neal, along with their two children share their home with the vines. Caring for this land is important to them and they use organic practices to create wines that represent a time and place. Renelle’s Block Pinot Noir, named for Scott’s mother, is their only wine that consistently expresses blue fruit. Lisa attributes this to the clay soils. Abby’s Block and Tallulah’s Run, named for their daughters, further express the differences in their terroir. Abby’s Block has flavors of dark fruit, earth and spice. Tallulah’s Run leans more to pretty red and black fruits with a silky texture. Visitors may be surprised to find estate grown Syrah, red and rosé, at Coeur de Terre.
Yamhill Valley Vineyards may be filled with guests from nearby Portland, from the east coast, or day trippers enroute to the Oregon coast. Tasting Room Manager, Linda Arnold, welcomes all as she visits around the room and gives everyone special attention. Knowledgable and fun, Arnold makes the wine tasting experience feel like a party. The tasting room is furnished with antiques and fantastic pieces made from wine barrels. In addition to vineyard views, exterior features include a back deck filled with the sound of songbirds and a fish pond in front. This is the oldest winery in the AVA; the first vintage was 1983.
Yamhill Valley Vineyards offers a wide range of price points and varieties; from a $15 Pinot Gris to their $60 Tall Poppy. Tall Poppy is a special Pinot Noir produced only in exceptional years. Celebrating their 31st anniversary, Yamhill Valley Vineyards has only made Tall Poppy eight times. Luckily 2012 produced a Tall Poppy which will be released soon.
Maysara Winery’s tasting room, barrel room, and winery are beautifully housed in a building constructed from stone and timber from the property. The interior walls are covered with reclaimed wine barrel staves. One area, excellent for a reception, has a unique parquet floor of barrel ends cut into octagons. Tasting room walls are stone and stepping into the space feels like entering a European cellar carved from a cave. Everything owners Moe and Flora Momtazi built makes for a beautiful experience.
Some of the most interesting wines of the McMinnville AVA are not found on retail shelves. Visiting the tasting rooms allows guests to get a better understanding of the style of each winery. Wine club members often get first dibs on small productions, plus other perks and entertainment. A trip to McMinnville can help decide if any of the wine clubs are a good fit.
With only nine winery-operated tasting rooms, the determined taster could experience the entire AVA in two to three days - depending on personal stamina and spit to swallow ratios.
Afraid three days of Pinot Noir is too much of a good thing? McMinnville also offers Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, and a variety of rosé.
Even the most seasoned palate can use a break. The scenery between vineyards is stunning. For a real detour from tasting, visit the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. Shops and galleries featuring local artisans dot Third Street in downtown McMinnville. An eclectic array of restaurants is available or pack a picnic at Harvest Fresh Grocery and Deli. Rooftop dining at the historic McMenamins Hotel Oregon offers views of the town which is especially nice at sunset. Visitors can lodge here in the heart of downtown or choose lodging in the vineyard. Overnight guests of the inn at Youngberg Hill Vineyards wake up to vineyard views and gourmet breakfasts.
McMinnville, Oregon is an easy 40 miles from Portland and less than an hour from the coast. Whether a destination or a stop along the way, plan to visit again and again. How else can one experience the yet to be released 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir from Yamhill Valley Vineyards, the newly planted Grüner Veltliner from Coeur de Terre, or the everchanging taste of the vintage?
-- JADE HELM is the primary author of Tasting Pour, a wine blog. Based in Oregon she is a Diplomate of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London and a Certified Specialist of Wine, Society of Wine Educators. Visit tastingpour.com