Focus on Oregon Pinot Noir

There are several reasons why the Willamette Valley merits even the most demanding pinot noir lover’s attention more today than ever before. Most important, the top performers are now consistently producing wines that can stand up to examples from anywhere. Even producers who made simply passable wines not so long ago are now reaching for the bar set by a dozen or so elite winemakers. Also, most of Oregon's top pinot noir vineyards are well into their second decade of production, with the vines past the difficult and often overproductive adolescent stage. Meanwhile, the state's best winemakers, those who have the most experience with the finest sites, are also well into their own second decade, or more, of production. And today these top producers are comfortable in their own skin. In the course of my visit to a dozen and a half wineries in early April, I don't recall once hearing Oregon wines referred to as competing with Burgundy.

Instead, discussions among pinot noir practitioners in Oregon today are focused on selection of the correct pinot noir clones for closely defined areas and specific vineyards. There are wildly varying opinions on the benefits and consequences of going whole hog with the newer Dijon clones or sticking with the older, established Wadenswil and, especially, Pommard clones that dominated early pinot noir plantings in Oregon. In our conversations it became clear that growers with older vines, not surprisingly, are hesitant to bet the farm, or the vineyard, on the still relatively new Dijon clones. But producers are unanimous in their opinion that what Oregon can do best is grow grapes that can make wines of world-class purity and depth of fruit.

The best examples from the 2002 and 2003 vintages drive home this point: these are wines with striking fruit impact and compelling sweetness, usually with high-pitched floral tones and wonderful clarity. My quick run through barrels from the 2004 vintage provided further evidence that the Willamette Valley offers a trove of beautifully scented, bright and exuberant pinot noirs.

In cellars throughout the Valley, winemakers have been on a rapid learning curve, with emphasis on minimal intervention in the vineyard as well as the cellar—or the barn, as the case may be. Clonal selection is meticulously considered, and vineyards are increasingly being turned over to organic, even biodynamic practices. In the cellars, one sees less evidence of over-extraction or manhandling of grapes, more conservative racking regimes, and greater emphasis on techniques that preserve freshness, purity and elegance in the wines. Oregon’s best winemakers display great respect for the vivid fruit and aromatic qualities that can be attained here, and they are reluctant to do anything to the wine that would mask or muddy these attributes. As Harry Peterson-Nedry, who makes intensely scented, bright wines at his Chehalem winery stated, “We get great perfume in Oregon. To lose this perfume, you would practically intentionally want to get rid of it.”

None of this is to say that the industry has taken the Luddite road. On the contrary, Oregon is at the vanguard of tackling the thorny alternative closure issue. In a recent tasting of a few dozen new releases of white wines, I found that the vast majority of non-chardonnay whites were sealed by Stelvin (screwcap) seals, and virtually everything else was stoppered by artificial cork, usually the Nomacork brand, which is made by a foam extrusion process. Recent studies have proven, at least to the satisfaction of most Oregon producers I have talked to, that those who object to Stelvin have overstated their case and should climb down from their cork trees. Wines that are intended to be drunk within three years of the vintage have acquitted themselves very well under the cap. Pinot noir producers have dipped their toes, gently, into the screwcap pool but in some cases have fully embraced silicone corks. The most notable convert must be Ken Wright, who has used Nomacorks for his entire production of wine from 2002 and 2003. The long-term results of synthetic corks are still an open issue. But, as with the white wines, those bottles that are intended to be drunk within a few years of the vintage, such as pretty much every bottle that winds up in a restaurant, don’t suffer in the least from being bottled under artificial closures.

Maybe it’s the high cost of better California pinot noirs and Burgundies today, but at the level of Oregon's finest bottles, prices today seem quite fair. With few exceptions, the very best bottles from the 2002 and 2003 vintages can be found in the market for less than $40, which is virtually the starting price, say, for pinots from the Sonoma Coast. Yes, there are a number of wines priced to compete with top Burgundy names, but these are quite rare, and in many cases are anomalies within a producer’s own line-up.

A primary reason for currently attractive pricing, it seems to me, must be the fairly recent arrival in the market of myriad new producers from California, notably the Central Coast. There is simply more high-quality pinot noir available today than there was ten years ago, when many of the top Oregon pinots were being released at prices that seemed a bit aggressive. Stiff competition has kept pricing relatively flat, making many of the best Oregon pinots look like better and better value. And while New Zealand’s pinots have only started to make a dent on the American market, every indication is that we’ll soon be hit with another wave of high-quality wine at good prices—the U.S. dollar permitting, of course. Oregon is now the old guy on the New World pinot block—this despite the fact that the first commercial planting of the grape occurred in 1968.

Although prices for Oregon pinot noir tend to be reasonable, production of the best bottlings is often pitifully small: as little as a single barrel (25 cases) in some instances and seldom more than 500 cases. Oregon's producers have loyal, hard-core local followings, not to mention active mailing lists, ensuring that many of the rarest wines will never see the shelves of stores farther afield than Portland. Consumers will probably find it a challenge to snare bottles of the top 2002s at this point, and most wineries have sold out of all small-production releases of their 2003s as well.

A few words on recent vintages. Despite some breathless “vintage of the century” proclamations, 2002 has turned out to be merely outstanding. Weather in late winter and early spring was cold and very wet. This was followed by a relatively normal season that became warmer and warmer, but without any serious heat waves, staying dry, as is usual here. The warm weather held and growers were looking forward to an idea harvest, but some serious rain came in late September and early October, just before many planned to pick. Some fruit had already been brought in. Patient growers—i.e., those who waited out the storms—began harvesting in most cases during the early days of October and continued late into the month. Those who benefited from longer hang time made balanced wines with sweet, juicy, intense, high-pitched fruit. These wines should prove to be exceptionally cellarworthy by Oregon standards, thanks to their balance and, in most cases, to sensible alcohol levels and moderate use of new and/or highly toasted oak barrels.

Vintage 2003 challenged and aggravated, thanks to wild temperature swings, most notably in July, when temperatures soared above 100oF on a regular basis, and during the final days of the growing season, just before the planned harvest. According to Ken Wright, "the resulting grapes achieved the highest sugar levels in our industry’s history.” An astounding number of wines are in excess of 15% alcohol, and a few hit 16%, a level that's high even for wines like California zinfandel. I tasted numerous 2003s that are overripe or even pruney, and more suggestive of Châteauneuf du Pape than any pinot region. High alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean high-octane moonshine, but without proper balance serious problems lurk: many of these outsized wines will fall flat under their alcohol and/or show more and more pruney and even stewy qualities in the coming years. Great winemakers, like card players, are defined more by what they can accomplish with a challenging hand, and that’s exactly what Oregon’s producers faced in 2003. But the most sure-handed among them have crafted some of the most remarkably sweet, dense, inky and mouthfilling pinots in Oregon’s history. Yields were lower than in 2002 as a consequence of the culling of sunburned, even raisined grapes.

Happily, 2004 has the potential to be an excellent vintage, albeit one with very small production. The harvest extended into late October, ensuring grapes of true maturity and offering the potential for ripeness and complexity without exaggerated alcohol levels. Fans of more elegant pinot noir will be pleased, especially following the wild 2003 vintage, which produced grapes—and many wines—with almost Californian, even Australian, ripeness and flavor profile. During my barrel tastings in early April, the producers’ excitement over their 2004s was palpable. "It's a nice break; we get to make pinot again," said Solena’s Laurent Montalieu.

I tasted the following wines over the last two months in New York as well as at numerous wineries in Oregon in early April.