Thanks to a fearless band of visionary winemakers, the state of Oregon, in America’s northwest, now produces ethereal, savoury pinot noir of world-class quality.
Notoriously one of the world’s most fickle varieties, winemakers persevere with pinot noir because when made well and to critical acclaim, it’s the equivalent of graduating from the Secret School of Talented Winemakers. But in order to give themselves the best possible chance of making pinot noir well, winemakers need to position themselves in a place where it sings rather than sulks.
The US state of Oregon is such a place. The Beaver State began its pinot journey back in the 1960s thanks to a handful of pioneering spirits, one of whom was advised against making wine in Oregon by professors at UC Davis California. But David Lett was undeterred by sceptical scholars and released his first vintage of The Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1970.
The state has never looked back. The late David is widely lauded as a local hero while his property, now run by his son Jason, remains iconic in the Willamette (rhymes with dammit) Valley, the region at the heart of Oregon pinot noir.
Today, more than 6800 hectares of pinot noir are planted in Oregon, leaving pinot gris – its second most planted variety – way in the distance with just over 1400 acres. With such a heavy weighting towards this holy grail of varieties, Oregon holds annual events dedicated to the pleasures of, and passion for, this grape.
Camp Pinot is for industry members, while the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) brings together professionals and pinot-loving American consumers. The events often focus on pinot noir from David Lett’s choice of sub-region, the Willamette Valley, an American Viticultural Area (AVA) that stretches 240km long by 95km wide. It’s a 45-minute drive south of the state’s largest city, Portland.
Why does pinot noir work so well here? It likes the terroir! It enjoys a mild climate with cool wet winters and warm dry summers. The valley is sheltered on three sides; the Coastal Range to the west, the Cascades to the east and a series of hills to the north. Most vineyards are planted on valley sides rather than floors and to the west of the Willamette River. Old volcanic and sedimentary soils are comprised of layers deposited by the Missoula floods some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Referring to the floods, David Paige, winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyards says with an air of tongue-in-cheek: “Washington, we have your soil and you’re not having it back!”. But, in fact, the volcanic soil that’s held in especially high esteem here is the well-draining Jory soil, which can only be found at higher elevations (usually above 100 metres) because it escaped the floods.
Not that the Oregonians need outside endorsement, but interest and investment from several Burgundian quarters has helped fuel confidence. Domaine Drouhin was the first to set up camp here more than 25 years ago. More recently, Maison Louis Jadot has invested in the area, “Now that’s not riff-raff,” says proud producer Alex Sokol Blosser when talking about his new neighbour. Meanwhile, Dominique Lafon of Domaines des Comtes Lafon was consultant winemaker for Evening Land Vineyards for years but has more recently embarked on a consultancy venture with a new winery, aptly named Lingua Franca.
Clearly the Burgundians have been seduced by Willamette’s style of pinot noir, indeed David Lett was originally advised that this was the only place in North America that could potentially produce pinot noir in a similar style to Burgundy. However, as the Oregonians have been finding their feet with this variety in recent decades, the style has been through an inevitable evolution. Scott Shull from Raptor Ridge explains: “In the early years we were looking for deeper ripeness, but we pushed things over the limit. Now we’ve learnt, for example, that we don’t need to pick at lower yields and actually it’s slightly higher yields that give us better wines.”
The key to the improved sophistication has been the cooperation among producers. Their annual Steamboat Conference brings together 50 producers and their wines, offering up their pinot noirs for intense scrutiny, analysis and debate. Often the wines submitted will deliberately have an issue that the winemaker wants to discuss with peers, prompting Scott to add: “This crucible of collaboration has been the accelerator to the improvement of quality.”
Today’s best Willamette Valley pinot noirs have a melt-in-the-mouth character, they’re ethereal (this is pinot noir after all) with a delicious texture, gentle minerality and generous-without-being-obtrusive freshness. They certainly don’t have the juicy mite of Californian pinot noir and nor do producers seek it. Instead the ‘fruit’ profile is generally more on the savoury spectrum.
The 500 or so producers in Willamette (of about 670 in Oregon) can make wines under the wider AVA umbrella of Willamette Valley. But there are sub-AVAs too, and within these some of the finest producers can be found, including Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Erath, Eyrie Vineyards and Sokol Blosser in Dundee Hills AVA; Adelsheim and Bergström in Chehalem Mountains AVA; Trisaetum in Ribbon Ridge AVA; and Cristom in Eola-Amity Hills AVA.
For all its progress and potential, the region isn’t without its challenges. As the world’s acceptance of screwcap improves on a daily basis, Oregon looks decidedly old-fashioned in its attitude towards this closure. But with so little exported (about 3 per cent) and American drinkers’ dislike of screwcap, you can see why the argument for using it here still isn’t very compelling, even if a handful of producers, such as Boedecker, have already taken the plunge.
Willamette pinot noir as we now know it is here thanks to a group of fearless visionaries. Today, with production increasing annually and high demand for bottles despite their higher-than-average retail price, the brave actions of a few seem more than justified as they now benefit the many, including the local winemakers eager to graduate from that special secret school.
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