Ask an international wine expert what Oregon is known for, and it’s a safe bet they will answer “Pinot Noir.”
It’s a reputation that’s well-deserved yet hard-earned. In the marketing world, it’s also valuable for a region to be defined so succinctly. Think of the power behind the term “Napa Cab.”
And while winemakers in Washington revel in the freedom to select from a kaleidoscope of grape varieties and produce world-class wines, there’s a catch. Ask those whose job it is to sell or promote Washington wine if they are jealous of the effective simplicity of the phrase “Oregon Pinot Noir.” That phrase resonates with consumers and sommeliers on the East Coast.
Each year during the last weekend of July, producers and supporters from around the world gather in the college town of McMinnville, Ore., for the International Pinot Noir Celebration. This time, an all-star lineup of wine country chefs and 70 Pinot Noir winemakers meet on the campus of Linfield College for the 31st annual IPNC.
More than 800 patrons register for the full weekend experience that includes University of Pinot seminars, and the Sunday Passport attracts an additional attendance of 550. This year’s Grand Seminar, titled The French Adventurers — Burgundians Making Pinot Noir in Oregon will be moderated by Eric Asimov, longtime wine critic for the New York Times.
The IPNC has been a sellout since 2011, but each year, a handful of tickets to the iconic Salmon Bake ($225), the signature Sunday Passport to Pinot ($125) walk-around tasting at Linfield College under Oak Grove and the Full Weekend Pass ($1,295) end up getting returned. As a result, organizers encourage folks to call (800) 775-4762 — don’t email at this late stage — and inquire. It never hurts to ask.
In anticipation of the IPNC, here are a few delicious examples of Oregon Pinot Noir that we’ve come to celebrate in recent weeks.
Alloro Vineyard 2014 Estate Pinot Noir, Chehalem Mountains, $35: Owner/grower David Nemarnik grew up tightly connected to his family’s Portland produce company, and he lives and now farms the 78 acres he came upon in the Chehalem Mountains while cycling. His flagship bottling of Pinot Noir is driven by Pommard clone fruit, and the focus is on tones of boysenberry, Bing cherry and blueberry with just a sprinkling of cocoa powder. Supremely managed tannins make for a drink of finesse that’s capped by blueberry and cinnamon oil. (14.1 percent alcohol)
Lenné Estate 2014 Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton, $45: Steve Lutz honors his late father-in-law, Lenny, an English farmer who served as inspiration to plant this steep, 21-acre property near the town of Yamhill, Ore. This flagship bottling offers aromas and flavors of cherry punch, boysenberry, Almond Roca and minerality are realized on the palate that’s balanced with medium tannins, juiciness and finished by a nibble of raspberry. (14.2 percent alcohol)
Ghost Hill Cellars 2014 Bayliss-Bower Vineyard Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton, $42: Enticing aromas of cherry jam, dark strawberry and cinnamon include beautiful forest elements joined by fresh tarragon and facial powder. It’s dark and ripe with a sense of elegance amid its long flavors of black cherry and dried strawberry as a flourish of juicy pomegranate, red currant and cinnamon make it quite the quaffer. (13.5 percent alcohol)
Ponzi Vineyards 2015 Tavola Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $27: Luisa Ponzi produces as many as 10 examples of Pinot Noir, but it is her Tavola that’s become the ambassador for arguably the most important family in the Oregon craft beverage industry. Her eminently approachable Pinot Noir offers darker tones of black currant, black cherry and plum with blood orange acidity. (13.7 percent alcohol)
Vidon Vineyard 2014 Estate Hans Clone Pommard Pinot Noir, Chehalem Mountains, $50: At the age of 69, former NASA physicist Don Hagge established his estate winery in 2000 near the town of Newberg, Ore., and the recent string of warm vintages in the Willamette Valley has propelled Hagge to new heights. He pays tribute to grandson Hans with this 100 percent presentation of Pommard clone Pinot Noir. Ripe flavors of raspberry and cranberry include blueberry with cocoa powder. A sprinkling of baking spice runs all the way through. (14.3 percent alcohol)
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2015 Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $32: Rather than fruit and barrel influences that jump from the glass, in this case, there’s delicate and gentle nature to the flagship wine from Jim Bernau. Its delightfully fresh and shy nose is nonetheless beautiful because it gently reveals cranberry, a whiff of garden beds after first sprinkle of rain and a hint of bramble. Flavors bring bright fruit and a lingering finish of cinnamon and clove. This earned a gold medal at the 2017 Cascadia Wine Competition. (14.3 percent alcohol)
Youngberg Hill 2014 Cuvée Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $35: The Baileys dry-farm their 15 acres of Pinot Noir, most of which date back to 1989 across this bucolic property west of McMinnville. Aromas of dark raspberry, ripe strawberry and pie cherry come through on the palate in a juicy and balanced fashion, designed as drink-now Pinot. (13.5 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com