Sitting Pretty: Oregon's New
Release Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Beyond
BY ERIC GUIDO | JANUARY 18, 2024
to think that even with all the expansion of vineyards and wineries within
Oregon, the region has untapped potential that remains ripe for future
development. Somehow, as California and Washington have pushed the limits of
exposing terroir, in Oregon, there are not only new and unique locations being
discovered within the larger AVAs and sub-AVAs, but also new sites throughout
the state that are being developed. The reality is that an aspiring winemaker
with the right investors and a good nose for terroir can still secure
uncultivated land here and begin planting vineyards at a reasonable cost.
Looking out across the Seven Springs vineyard.
producers will explain that global warming was a more significant help than a hindrance
in Oregon. I think back to over a decade ago when seasons started warming.
While some producers lamented not being able to reproduce the wines that had
made the region famous with more Euro-centric palates, others were over the
moon to be making wines that were widely appealing to consumers. There were
growing pains in the end, but winemakers found a new balance by adjusting their
approach in the vineyards and wineries. In 2022, my predecessor, whom we all
miss dearly, Josh Raynolds, wrote, “One could convincingly argue that the last
six vintages, from 2014 through 2019, produced many of the greatest wines to
ever emerge from the state.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more, and now, except for
the 2020 vintage, Oregon pushes forward with three good to potentially great
years in the form of 2021, 2022 and 2023.
while I’ve witnessed other winemaking regions break down their larger growing
regions into sub-AVAs that don’t always communicate a stamp of terroir, the
breakdown of Oregon’s Willamette Valley was expertly executed. Today, the names
Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton (which were the first to be delineated in the early 2000s)
are proudly emblazoned on the front labels of many wines and can provide
consumers insights into what to generally expect from the bottle. More recently,
they’ve added the Van Duzer Corridor, Tualatin Hills, Laurelwood District,
Lower Long Tom and Mount Pisgah, Polk County, all incredibly unique and worth
The Domaine Serene vineyards in the Dundee Hills.
Coming Full Circle
a consumer thinks of Oregon, Pinot Noir comes to mind first. However, the
industry got its start with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while it was the
latter that won Oregon its fame and became the region's primary focus. As a
result, Chardonnay was very much pushed to the side, and when replanting took
place, it was Pinot that was prioritized. Through it all, Chardonnay was
waiting in the wings and is now making a significant impact on the region.
While Pinot Noir isn’t going anywhere and continues to enjoy its reign as the
most widely produced variety in the state, Chardonnay has been growing by leaps
and bounds. A combination of more and more growers looking to expose the best
sights to plant Chardonnay and a better understanding of the ideal clones to grow
has sent quality levels through the roof. As a result, wineries like Morgen
Long, Walter Scott, Goodfellow
Family Cellars and
00 Wines have been able to take single-vineyard Oregon Chardonnay to new
heights, inspiring many others to follow suit. Granted, in a report that
contains over 900 wines, Pinot Noir still totals over 520 reviews, while
Chardonnay only comes in around 182. However, I feel that we will witness a
balancing of those scales in the years to come. That said, Pinot Noir is the
pride of Oregon, and a look through just about any winemaker's portfolio will
reveal multiple single-vineyard bottles, clonal selection bottlings, a prestige
label and a larger production AVA bottling, which usually provides consumers
with the best bang for their buck.
it’s not just about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay any longer, and this is where
Oregon's diversity and unexposed terroirs are also coming into play. I’ve found
several exciting Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners. I believe there’s a massive
potential for growth in these two categories, especially as cooler and well-ventilated
locations are being developed. I hope to see many more of these in future
tastings as both interest in the varieties and locations to source from
increase. Plenty of Pinot
Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier are also being made, but not many
of them truly moved the needle for me. Then there are the reds: Syrah,
Grenache, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, and one of my favorites, Gamay Noir. I wish
there was more to go around. For my tastes, Gamay is often to Oregon Pinot what
cru Beaujolais is to Red Burgundy.
The Bethel Heights vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills.
Beyond the Willamette Valley
the Willamette Valley and its AVAs are clearly ahead of the game (experience
counts), several emerging regions must now be considered. The most obvious of
these locations is The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, which exists in the
Walla Walla Valley in the extreme northeast. While most of the producers, to
date, that are publicly sourcing from the Rocks hail from Washington, the fact
is that this is a piece of Oregon terroir, and we can expect many more wineries
in the state to start taking advantage of this resource. This recent trip
revealed several Rocks District wines featuring Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet
Franc, which all boasted that unique stamp of terroir that this region has
become known for. A few noteworthy standouts came from Big Farm Table, White
Rose Estate and Martin Woods. Then there’s the highly diverse Rouge Valley in
Oregon's southwest. This is a much warmer location than the Willamette Valley
to the north. However, like its northern neighbor, it enjoys drastic diurnal
shifts from day to night that help grapes maintain aromatics and acidity. The
grapes planted here run the gamut from Bordeaux to Rhône Varieties, Pinot Noir,
Chardonnay and even Barbera. From my experience, what the Rogue Valley is
currently lacking is a regional flavor. Yet, it's easy to imagine the potential
of this area and how it can set itself apart from the rest of the state. Then
there’s the Umpqua Valley, located between the Willamette and Rouge Valleys,
where I found more consistent quality and some great values from the likes
of Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo and Merlot. Ultimately, Oregon is geared to prove
to the world that there is life beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
A Possible Vintage Trifecta
mentioned earlier in this article, Oregon producers and wine lovers have much
to be excited about. Despite some early worries, the 2021 vintage turned out to
be fantastic. The 2022s make for a great comeback with larger quantities and
remarkably pretty wines, and the 2023 harvest (while entirely too early to
truly predict) has producers excited across the region.
2020: The Elephant in the Room
first, addressing the elephant in the room is essential: the 2020 vintage.
this time, I’m sure nearly every reader is aware of the challenges of the 2020
vintage, but for consistency, I believe it's essential to summarize. The 2020
vintage was potentially going to be great until a blanket of wildfire smoke
descended upon the region on September 12th and remained for well over a week.
The conditions were brutal, not just for the vines but also for the locals.
Even if the fruit was at a stage where it could be picked, the question a
conscientious winemaker had to make was if they were willing to send a human
being out into those conditions to pick.
opinions about the ability to make any, much less a quality wine in 2020 are
all over the board. Some will explain that even the fruit picked before the
smoke event was still likely affected by the residual smoke that not only
blanketed the vineyards but also infused itself with nearly all that it touched
inside and outside the wineries. Others believe that the key to any success was
removing the juice from the skins and seeds as quickly as possible and, in some
cases, even using the lees of the previous vintage to add structure and depth
to the wines. Most producers I spoke with did pick their fruit and vinify the
juice into wine. A common sentiment I received was the importance of supporting
the local growers and vineyard workers, even if the fruit couldn’t be used.
Many producers tried to filter. Others simply declassified into one wine, which
they clearly represented to their customers as having the potential for smoke
taint and sold only at the cellar door. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of
Rosé made from the 2020 vintage. However, in nearly all cases, even if the wine
was made, it was either bulked out or sold as-is, sometimes with interesting
marketing tools, such as one producer mentioning selling a “Smoke-house” wine
that was popular with local firefighters.
Barrels at the Lingua Franca winery.
of that said, there are a handful of entirely unexpected and surprisingly
successful, even wildly successful, wines made from the 2020 vintage. Wines
that thumb their nose at conventions or were survivors of the catastrophe by
Thomas Savre of Lingua Franca created one of the most interesting, and frankly
thrilling, Pinot Noirs of not only the vintage but from my last trip with the
2020 Novo Vivo. This unique location within the Lingua Franca estate vineyards
was fully ripe and picked in the first week of September before the smoke
descended. Unfortunately, just ninety cases were produced. Another set of
standouts hail from Maggie Harrison and co-winemaker Mimi Adams at Antica
Terra. Harrison explained they had to pick “long after the smoke” because “none
of our fruit was ripe before the fire.” She went on to explain that it was only
because of the guidance of industry veterans such as Ted Lemon at Littorai and
Sashi Moorman of Evening Land, Domaine de la Côte, Piedrasassi and numerous
other projects that she was able to understand how to cope with smoke taint. Harrison
vinified all of her Pinot Noir, yet upon analysis and tasting, decided not to
bottle any at all. However, when it came to Chardonnay, it was a completely
different story, as the wine went through a light crush and was immediately
removed from the skins. The Aequorin and Aurata Chardonnays are two of the most
successful wines of the vintage. There are other examples, primarily in the form
of Chardonnay. Moreover, we are now witnessing more producers sourcing fruit
from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in the extreme northeast, where
smoke was much less of an issue.
beware, there are also a number of 2020s that had no right, ever, to be
bottled. They are being sold in the market as if they are sound and at regular
prices. Some of these wines are from producers that I never would have imagined
making such a poor decision, one that ultimately will hurt the unsuspecting
public and Oregon's reputation as a whole. These wines are lacking energy and/or
depth on the palate and have harsh tannins. Flavors of smoky charred wood,
barbeque or even burning tires on the nose and finish abound. Tasting a
smoke-tainted 2020 is a grievous experience. Enough said.
The many styles, unique vineyards and clonal selections of Pinot Noir in Oregon provide a wide range to choose from.
2021: Fruit-Forward yet Classically Structured
that out of the way, it’s time to talk about the present and future in the form
of the racy, fruit-forward yet classically structured 2021s and the elegant,
finessed and adorable 2022s. While many late-release 2018s and 2019s show the
qualities of their vintage, more than half of all the wines submitted for this
report hail from the 2021 vintage, and I must say that tasting through them was
an absolute pleasure.
initial worries over 2021 first came from the news about the heat dome that
descended upon the region from the 27th to the 29th of June, with temperatures
reaching up to 117 degrees. Yes, this was a warm vintage, with warmer-than-average
temperatures throughout May and June. However, the saving grace, outlined by
several producers, were rains that arrived prior to the heat dome that
replenished water supplies and that the grapes and vines were in an early
enough stage not to be heavily affected.
growing season remained warm and dry through most of August. It’s important to
note the significant diurnal shifts that western Oregon experiences.
Temperatures often drop by as much as 25-27 degrees at night. Moreover, a
benefit of this warm and dry weather was a serious reduction of disease
pressure throughout the year. Ben Casteel of Bethel Heights explained, “It was
one of the cleanest growing seasons we had because all of the fungus died.” The defining moment occurred in September through October when seasonal
rains brought much cooler temperatures. This was followed by near-perfect
weather that lasted throughout harvest, which, for the most part, was completed
around the middle of October.
Pinots with a forward personality out of the gate, perfumed with a gorgeous
combination of rich fruit and spice energized by bright acidity yet followed up
with a classic core of ripe tannins. Most 2021s don’t come across as warm
vintage wines and possess a balance that will reward cellaring. I found
Chardonnay equally appealing, where a balance of vividly ripe fruit is married
to streamlined acidity and a solid core of minerality. In the end, following
2020, the 2021 vintage is a blessing for us all.
The wide diversity of soils at Cristom vineyards.
An Early Look at 2022
taken an early look at 2022, long-time Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
collectors should be excited. While my tastings covered just over 150 wines,
they included the likes of Patricia Green Cellars, Domaine Drouhin, Evening
Land Vineyards, White Rose Estate, Kelley Fox Wines, Cristom Vineyards and many
others. Of note, I expect to return to Oregon later this year, when 2022 will
be the primary focus. From this current selection, I’m finding classic, almost
throwback-style wines that impress with their perfumed personalities, finesse,
cool-toned fruits and elevated acidity. Winemaker Aaron Bell of Domaine Drouhin
described the season as “a cool and wet spring going into June followed by an
average summer… during harvest, we were blessed with the most unbelievable
conditions, 78-80 degrees well into October.”
the big topic early in the season was frost, most producers reported yields
that were on average or even larger than expected. Isabelle Meunier of Lavinea
commented, "The summer was glorious, and we had a huge set. Yields were
really high in 2022, really high. I had to ask many growers to crop down to one
bunch per shoot.” Tom Gerrie, owner of Cristom Vineyards, had a similar perspective: “We dropped more than half
the fruit, and we still ended up with yields a touch higher than 2021.” Overall, 2022 was a warm and dry
yet balanced vintage, which is a breath of fresh air for most producers. At Evening
Land Vineyards, winemaker Sashi Moorman explained that “the 2022s were
made with much lower amounts of sulfur due to the low pH of the vintage, giving
the wines a more lifted and energetic feel.” He commented on the compact nature
of the season, detailing how “rainstorms around harvest made it a big rush to
get everything in.”
this is a vintage that I’m very excited about and looking forward to exploring
in greater depth. As a fan of Oregon wines going back nearly twenty years, the
2022s have a nostalgic feel to them.
Because of a
disruption of reporting on Oregon through the previous year, readers can expect
two reports in 2024 that will put us back on track with all new releases. All of the wines in this report were tasted in Oregon
through organized tastings and producer visits.
© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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