For more than 40 years, the Oregon wine industry has specialized in pinot noir. Today, Oregon winemakers continue an often Quixotic quest to make the greatest pinot noir, a variety considered by many to be the most noble of wine grapes.
In the 1960s, winemakers and grape growers began to experiment with growing pinot noir in the cool Willamette Valley, a region that stretches from the Columbia River in the north to the city of Eugene in the south. Such pioneers as Dick Erath, Dick Ponzi and David Lett paved the way for today's Oregon wine industry, which now comprises more than 300 producers.
Certainly, Oregon has diversified itself, producing superb syrahs, bold cabs, racy rieslings, rich chardonnays and even spicy zinfandels. But when most wine lovers hear the words "Oregon wine," they think first of pinot noir.
Oregon pinots tend to be spendy because growing the grapes and crafting the wines are expensive. But we also are seeing more wines that are affordable. The wines reviewed here range from $18 to $100.
King Estate 2009 Acrobat pinot noir, Oregon, $18: Jeff Kandarian and his team turn around this entry-level, screwcapped pinot noir with amazing speed while still giving it time for six months in various ages of French oak. Raspberry, Bing cherry, strawberry, vanilla and cedar aromas come alive on the palate with sweet plums, delicate tannins and acidity to back it up. Serve with salmon on a cedar plank or accented with raspberry chipotle sauce.
Brandborg Vineyard and Winery 2007 Love Puppets pinot noir, Umpqua Valley, $30: Terry and Sue Brandborg, aka "The Love Puppets," paint quite a scene with dry-farmed fruit. Its light color provides an accurate preview, a delicate nose with cherry fruit leather, raspberry, grilled pomegranate, cinnamon bark and Nestle chocolate. A finesse-filled drink toes that line with notes of boysenberry and cherry-infused tea that lead to lingering acidity and bittersweet chocolate tannins.
Elk Cove Vineyards 2008 Reserve pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $100: Not often in life do you get what you paid for, but owner/winemaker Adam Campbell rewards the investment in one of the Northwest's most expensive pinot noirs. It's also extremely expressive with whiffs of boysenberry, plums, lime, chocolate and cedar. Little oak shows on the palate, allowing for velvety flavors of black cherry, strawberry, boysenberry, marionberry and orange pekoa tea. Acidity is apparent, but not tannin, which gives one time to appreciate the farewell from cassis and citrus peel.
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards 2008 Three Hills Cuvée pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $40: The melange of Freedom Hill, Yamhill Vineyards and the estate site makes for aromas of fresh pie cherries, raspberry, orange citrus and smoky cedar. There's big richness on the entry that features boysenberry juice and lots of cherry flavor, cast in a silky structure. Serve with roasted pork in a cherry sauce.
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2009 Whole Cluster Fermented pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $20: Mother Nature winnowed this production by more than 7,000 cases from the 2008 vintage, yet it remains the Northwest's largest offering of a Beaujolais style. Carbonic maceration and no oak make for aromas and flavors of Hawaiian Punch, and it's built for a sprint, not a marathon. Ample acidity, miniscule tannin and hints of crushed herbs lends this to barbecue salmon or duck. This is Forrest Klaffke's best effort with this approach since 2006.
Winter's Hill Vineyard 2008 pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $20: Winemaker Delphine Gladhart used only estate fruit and could have labeled it with a Dundee Hills appellation. She chose not to. It's a more hedonistic pinot noir as it carries blackberry, dark plum and milk chocolate aromas and flavors. Balanced acidity and a nice line of tannin pick up cinnamon before tart blueberries carry it off.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.