A singular varietal focus gives Oregon a tremendous advantage in an ever-more crowded wine market.
When any wine lover around the globe says “Oregon wine,” “Pinot Noir” almost always comes to mind immediately. This is thanks to a singular focus dating back to the 1960s, when folks such as David Lett, Dick Ponzi and Dick Erath arrived and helped establish the Oregon wine industry.
The first Pinot Noir was planted by Richard Sommer in the Umpqua Valley. Lett, known as “Papa Pinot,” planted the first Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley in 1966. One of the turning points came in 1979 when one of Lett’s Pinots shocked the world in a French judging.
Since then, a laser focus has remained on Pinot Noir, a red grape most famous in France’s Burgundy region and Northern California’s Russian River Valley. Of the nearly 90,000 tons of wine grapes harvested in 2016 throughout Oregon, more than 50,000 tons were Pinot Noir. The state’s No. 2 red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, but much of that comes out of the Walla Walla Valley and is used by Washington winemakers.
Here are a few of the delicious Oregon Pinot Noirs we’ve tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2015 Pas De Nom Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $125: Lynn Penner-Ash’s stylishly “no name” Pinot Noir continues to stand out within the lexicon of Oregon Pinot Noir, and her latest expression features a blend of six vineyards, led by Bella Vida in the Dundee Hills and historic Shea. There’s magnificence behind the 10 months in French oak, offering hints of cocoa powder, cardamom, allspice and pencil shavings alongside Bing cherry and smoky plum. Enjoyable fine-grained tannins are ushered out by Marionberry juice.
Love & Squalor 2015 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $28: Portland vintner Matt Berson recently entered his second decade of Love & Squalor, and he named his duo-pronged passion project of Pinot Noir and Riesling as a tribute to iconic author J.D. Salinger. His flagship wine is this Pinot Noir that represents about a third of his entire production. His choice of an 18-month program in mature French oak shows up merely as an enticing dusting of cocoa powder that’s behind the purple fruit tones of plum and blueberry.
Alexana Winery 2015 Revana Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $49: An example of Dr. Madaiah Revana’s exploration of Pinot Noir shows in this estate project that’s part of his 10th anniversary series in the Dundee Hills for Alexana Winery. (He established Revana Family Vineyards northwest of St. Helena in the Napa Valley a decade prior.) This bottling encompasses the 10 clones planted across 46 acres, touching on 18 soil types. Yet, the Dundee Hills shines through in this full-bodied Pinot Noir, offering a theme of raspberry pie, cranberry-rhubarb compote and earthiness surrounded by suave tannins.
Bells Up Winery 2015 Titan Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $40: Dave Specter devoted about a quarter of his overall annual production to this Titan Pinot Noir, and as his own vineyard in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains takes root, he sources from the nearby Yamhill-Carlton region. A brief seven months in 30 percent new French oak barrels offers tones of cranberry-rhubarb compote with sweet mulling spices. There’s a sense of Burgundy in the background as a rub of sandalwood is met by earthiness, saddle leather, red currant acidity and lower level of alcohol.
Le Cadeau Vineyard 2015 Rocheux Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $50: Tom and Deb Mortimer, who developed the Parrett Mountain planting, named their site for the French phrase meaning “the gift.” Jim Sanders continues to steer this block-driven project toward a dark purple-fruited profile with blueberry and black currant joined by plum-skin tannins.
Vidon Vineyard 2014 Estate Brigita Clone 777 Pinot Noir, Chehalem Mountains, $50: Vicki Lewis and Don Hagge are entering their second decade as owners Vidon Vineyard (pronounced Vee-Dohn), and a number of the Willamette Valley’s top producers have vineyards surrounding theirs in the Chehalem Mountains. Don’s work with clone 777 is reflected in this bottling named after their granddaughter, and it’s a deliciously bright example. Aromas of Chukar Cherry, blueberry and white pepper lead to precise fruit-driven flavors of pie cherry, blueberry and pomegranate, backed by a mist of orange oil.
Elk Cove Vineyards 2015 Mount Richmond Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton, $60: One of Campbell family’s earliest-ripening sites, Mount Richmond became a part of the Elk Cove portfolio in 1996 when founding vintners Pat and Joe Campbell purchased the land as a partnership with second-generation winemaker Adam Campbell and his wife, Carrie. All that work helps produce an immediately approachable, regal and ripe Pinot Noir with aromas and flavors of Marionberry, plum and cherry pie juice.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com