In Pursuit of Pinot Perfection: Oregon’s Willamette Valley! #wine

No other grape has been as romanticized or revered in the wine world as much as the petulant princess, Pinot Noir. The pigeon’s blood ruby of wines, one sip can transform even the simplest soul into a prolific poet. Like the transcendental tango, it is a cotillion of emotions that is so indescribable, the only way one can understand it is to experience it. It only takes a sip to fall in love, and a lifetime, chasing the unattainable harmony of sensuality, fluidity, restraint passion, and elegance. It’s hypnotic and narcotic.

When I hear the word pinot, I think of softly-scented shimmering red fruits (raspberry, strawberry, cranberries), layered with sweet spices, like a freshly baked cinnamon kissed cherry pie or thanksgiving in a bottle, musky mushrooms, tantalizing tea and tobacco. I expect silky and smooth texture, filigree tannins, refreshing acidity, and a lingering finish.

An ancient vine, it has many names including Pinot Nero and Pignola in Italy, Spätburgunder, Blauburgunder, and Blauer Klevner in Germany, Savagnin Noir in Switzerland, Nagyburgundi in Hungary, Burgundac Crni (Serbia and Croatia), Rouci (Czech Republic), Pino Fran (Moldova), and Pinot Cernii (Russia). In it’s home land of France – Pineau de Bourgoyne, Franc Pineau, Noirien, Franc Noirien, Salvagnin, Morillon, Auvernat, Auvernaut noir, Plant Doré, and Vert Doré.

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Since the dark ages, men have revered Pinot Noir, hoping to unlock the mysteries of this captivating cultivar. Chased by collectors, why is the thin-skinned, persnickety pinot, so difficult to work with? An early budding variety, extremely sensitive to climate change, which in turn effects fruit set causing coulure, (which is when the grapes do not form). Susceptible to diseases like fungus  – downy and powdery mildew generating off flavors in wine and limiting the vine’s photosynthesis ability. Viral disease such as leaf roll also delay ripening and reduce yields. Adding to the misery Botrytis (magical mold we relish in dessert wines), pestilent Pierce’s disease, and predisposed to mutations (Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, and Meunier are all descendants of Pinot noir).

Did I mention her lengthy lineage?

Sip on this: Pinot Noir and the outlawed Gouias Blanc combined, are parents of 16 cultivars including Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligoté.

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A relative newcomer in the world of pinot noirs, this grand grape has been growing in the Willamette valley since 1965 when David Lett, the renegade, defected to Oregon with 3,000 grape cuttings and a theory, planted the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley, and the first Pinot Gris inAmerica.

Rocking along the 45° North latitude, Oregon runs parallel with Burgundy France, which has been the pious penthouse of Pinot Noir since the 14th century. Oregon’s northerly latitude provides the indispensable sunlight for long, even ripening, and the crisp, cool nights to ensure that grapes retain their vibrant acidity of this short season varietal. A geologist’s “Pandora’s box”, what makes Oregon immensely intriguing is the patchwork of soils that frame the bedrock of Willamette Valley. The volcanic iron-rich basalt soils of Dundee Hills called Jory, marine sediment of Wilkanzie soil, and Laurelwood soil of windblown Loess over basalt bedrock date back to the Miocene Epoch, give or take a million years. Digging the dirt? Check out the Oregon Wine Press comprehensive article here.

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Principally dedicated to one glorious grape, Pinot Noir, Oregon offers a cornucopia of distinct styles to appease just about any pinot-phile. Dainty as a ballerina, supple as a yoga instructor, lean like a bicyclist training for tour de France, or voluptuous as a vixen.  Regardless of the stylistic differences, in general, any expression of Pinot Noir from Oregon should exude a breathtaking balance of grace and power, to deliver wines of haunting depth and individuality, as they mature and evolve.

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Cradled between the cloudy Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges, eponymous of the river that flows through it, Willamette Valley AVA, Oregon’s preeminent and largest AVA, stretches 120 miles from Portland south through Salem to the Calapooya Mountains outside Eugene. Recognizing the stark site diversity, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB) sub-divided the valley in to six smaller appellations: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. Yes, that is six, riveting renditions of the prima donna – Pinot Noir. Add wine-making differences, you have a kaleidoscope of spell-binding styles waiting to be discovered.

Shall we sip and savor? Listed below are the flourishing wineries we visited, under the umbrella of each AVA.

Home to the first planting of Pinot Noir in Oregon (Eyrie Vineyards) Dundee Hills AVA wine’s secret lies in it’s rich, red volcanic soil ‘Jory’ that allow pinot noir to develop alluring aromas of rich red fruit, heightened by sweet spices, silky and savory, beautifully bound with subtle tannins.

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Leery of Oregon Pinot’s longevity? We highly recommend a pit stop at Eyrie Vineyards to sip and savor the enthralling 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve. ‘Papa Pinot’ – David Lett’s brain child, Eyrie Vineyard boasts the oldest and rarest library collection of Oregon pinots, dating back to 1970s. Curated currently by David’s son Jason, who took the helm of Eyrie in 2005.

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Eyrie Vineyards: The 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir put Oregon on the world map as a premier pinot noir growing region. Eyrie’s single vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays are not only farmed organically, each vineyard boasts un-grafted, pre-phylloxera vines, a rarity in today’s wine world. Do yourself a favor and stop by Eyrie for a taste of history.

Fortuitous timing might prompt an unforeseen and delightful treat of experiencing Eyrie through the eyes of Jason Lett, who continues the arduous work of carrying his father’s legacy into the 21st. century. Case in point: Musical experiment to determine the affect of sound waves on wine. Water-proof speakers were immersed in the barrels holding identical juices (vintage, block, wine making, etc.). While one barrel heard Hildegarde, the other barrel jived to Coltrane jazz. The proof lies in the taste and both the bottles truly tasted distinctly different. How progressive!!

Leading us to another intriguing inference? Do men and women discern food and wine differently? Are our olfactory senses that dissimilar? At our blind tasting session, all the women indisputably identified and relished the batch of wine exposed to Coltrane music. Hmm, now that’s another story brewing in our near future.

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Home to the most revered grapevines in the Dundee Hills AVA, the immensely coveted fruit of Maresh Vineyard, has been sourced by many notable labels including, Archery Summit, Daedalus Cellars, Et Fille, Penner-Ash, Rex Hill, St. Innocent, Scott Paul and more.

Jim Sr. manages to stash his superior grapes for a limited supply of house bottling, which you can sip and savor at the Artberry Maresh at Red Barn Tasting Room. We especially enjoyed the layered and lively reserve chardonnays and spicy/savory qualities of Maresh’s pure and unpretentious pinots. Perched smack in the middle of Maresh vineyards, is the Red Hills Vineyard Retreat, managed by the dauntless Ms. Martha Maresh. And yes, one can rent the four bedroom cottage with 360 degrees expansive view all the way to Mt. Hood. Check out this exclusive time lapse, painstakingly produced by Mr. Howard, CFL’s very own leading creative company Pixel1080.

Head over to Domaine Serene for an indulgent Napa style experience, that has garnered accolades as the top 50 wineries of the world and top 100 wines of Wine Spectator 2013. Occupying vineyards in Dundee, Yamhill-Carlton, and Eola-Amity, Domaine Serene produces a myriad of single vineyard and blended bottlings including an intoxicating Rose and Coeur Blanc – white wine made from 100% Pinot noir.

The nasty flu incapacitated me, forcing us to cancel our much awaited appointment at Domaine Drouhin and our personal favorite St. Innocent.

Established in 2005, Yamhill-Carlton AVA is notable for it’s coarse-grained, ancient marine sedimentary soils, that promote drainage, which loosely translates to highly aromatic, lush bodied, lighter acidity wines in one’s glass.

Alexana Winery: Named after Dr. Revana’s daughter Alexandra, Alexana wines are an excellent representation of the geological history, 18 diverse soils, and capricious climate of Oregon.

Big Table Farm: A relatively new comer on the scene, the elegant and laser-sharp focused wines from the house of Brian Marcy (winemaker) and Clare Carver (artist), literally knocked our socks off.  Brian honed his skills under the tutelage of iconic producers such as Turley Wine cellars, Neyers Vineyards, Blankiet Estate, and Marcassin, to name a few. Clare the talented artist captures the essence and soul of Big Table through her hand-crafted wine labels.

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We will gladly endorse Brian’s BBQ skills, in case he had a hankering for a career change. Sweet, salty, and earthy, tender bites of luscious fat and meat, we award Brian’s smoked pork belly – 100 points. From the strawberry-scented Laughing Pig Rose, barrel fermented, unfined/unfiltered exquisite Elusive Queen Chardonnay, racy Riesling, to the equal parts fruit and earth line up of precise Pinot Noirs, you will be hard-pressed not to fall in love in with Big table and their extended family of horses, chickens, and dogs.

Elk Cove's Estate Vineyards, Gaston, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Elk Cove’s Estate Vineyards, Gaston, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Recognized as Winery of the Year 2013 by Wine & Spirits, Elk Cove Vineyards remains family owned with Adam Campbell as a 2nd generation winemaker and a 4th generation Oregon farmer at it’s helm. From some of the oldest vines planted in Willamette Valley, Elk Cove produces regular bottling to their single vineyard reserve from their various thoughtfully farmed sites including Estate, Mount Richmond, and their latest project at Goodrich vineyards. Amongst their poignant Pinots, the Pinot Gris and snappy Sparklings were some of the best examples we came across in Oregon.

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Juxtaposed in a protective rain shadow cast by the Coast Range and the cooling winds from the Van Duzer Corridor, McMinnville AVA enjoys warmer and drier climate in comparison to rest of Willamette Valley. Straddling a 2000 foot thick mineral-rich marine sedimentary bedrock formation with alluvial overlays, McMinnville AVA’s wines are expressions of powerful black fruit laced with earthiness and brooding tannins. One of the most flamboyant fiestas lauding the poignant pinot, the International Pinot Noir Celebration, is held in the last weekend of July in Mcminnville.

Eponymous to it’s Farsi name “house of wine”, Maysara is an extraordinary tale of courage and perseverance. From a Persian refugee – Moe Momtazi, to one of the youngest female wine maker in the United States – Tahmiene Momtazi, both generations whole heartedly embrace the holistic approach of farming. Itching to host a corporate or private party, look no further, Bride’s Magazine considers Maysara, top wedding venues of 2014/15.

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According to the Oregon Wine Board, more than 25 percent of Oregon’s vineyards are certified sustainable, organic, or biodynamic, classifications that require varying degrees of organic methods.

Co-winemakers Amy Wesselman and David Autrey produce a modest 5000 cases of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir combined at Westrey Wines. The vineyard is LIVE certified and their commitment to the !Salud! program helps provide health care to vineyard workers who are otherwise un-insurable. Enquiring about PH levels are likely to get David’s juices flowing to divulge his wine-making bag of tricks. 

Bonded in 1934, Eola-Amity Hills is home to the oldest operating winery in the state, Salem’s Honeywood Winery. Eola’s Van Duzer Corridor’s diurnal temperature variance results in preservation of the grape’s natural acidity producing a brighter, fresher wine. Shallower soils in comparison to some other AVAs, in cooler terroirs, capture more heat, assisting in earlier ripening of the berries. Basaltic clay/loams called Jory, Nekia, and Gelderman are found on higher elevation, while lower elevations straddle sedimentary soils of Steiwer, Chehulpum, and Helmick.

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Dreams do come true, as it so appears for the dynamic duo Erica Landon’s and Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott Wines. Sourcing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from various Eola-Amity vineyards including the illustrous vineyards of Freedom Hill, Seven Springs, Temperance Hill, Beize, and Vojtilla Vineyard (Chehalem Mountains AVA). Ken impresses with highly aromatic, lively wines, commanding real personality. With production ranging from 75 – 350 cases, we highly recommend signing up for their mailing list as these coveted wines are sold out before they see the light of any retail shelf. 2014 Chardonnays showcased vibrant yellow fruit, white flowers, delicate herbal nuances presented with precise balance of fruit and minerality. Pinot Noirs range from alluring Asian spices to intoxicating juicy red fruit, and a savory character that finishes with lingering complexity. We were hard pressed to pick a favorite since each elegant expression showcased Ken’s signature wine-making – a balance of precision and dramatic personalities.

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We suggest reserving the Past, Present, and Future tasting tour, a stroll through time at Bethel Heights, tracing the life cycle of pinot noir from a barrel tasting to library wines.

Antica Terra: 11-acre rocky vineyard, prehistoric seabed sediments, add Ms. Maggie Harrison (better known as the winemaker for cult wine – Sine Qua Non), Winemaker of 2012 by Food and Wine to the mix, we have an irreproachable recipe for some seriously seductive and thrilling wines. We were especially intrigued by the 2013 Angelicall Rose made exclusively from Pinot Noir (at 100+, a hefty price for pink-colored juice). Ceras, Botanica pinot noir, and Lilian’s Syrah all lived up to their glowing reputation.

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Chehalem Mountains ranges from 200 to 1,633 feet, with Bald Peak standing tall as the highest point within the Willamette Valley at 1,633 feet. Chehalem Mountain’s mosaic of soils including basaltic Saum and Jory on the southern and western slopes, Marine sedimentary Melbourne and Willakenzie, windblown Loess Laurelwood, a myraid of Pinot noir is produced, from juicy, delicious, light red fruit flavors to powerful, intense, black fruit driven, highly structured cellar-worthy gems.

Elk Cove’s Clay Court and Five Mountain vineyard are located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA too.

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One of the oldest family wineries of Oregon, perched on a state of the art modern tasting room, Ponzi Wines bridges the generational gap intertwining them seamlessly under second-generation ownership. Burgundian-trained Winemaker Luisa Ponzi crafts limited quantities of Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, dry Riesling and Italian varietals from Piemonte – Arneis and Dolcetto.

An impromptu stop at the tasting room of Scott Paul led to a delightsome barrel tasting with wine maker Ian Burch. Indulge my candidness, lines can easily get blurred with repetitive tasting of one grape varietal, regardless of it’s superiority. Any occasion to sip and savor barrel samples that brilliantly exemplify the nuances of each of their respective terroirs, is always a welcoming opportunity. General consensus leaned towards the richer expression from Ribbon Ridge (Willakenzie soil), while Azana (Jory soil) in contrast was floral and already drinking beautifully. Showing splendidly, Nysa captivated me with bursts of bright red fruit, exuding licorice notes, and a distinct minerality, reflective of it’s volcanic soil. Personally, La Paulee and Audrey reserve a permanent spot in our cellar.

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The smallest sub-appellation Ribbon Ridge AVA contained within the larger Chehalem Mountains AVA, encompasses 500 acres planted to vines in its 5.25 square miles. Consisting of entirely marine sedimentary soils, also called Wilkanzie, Ribbon Ridge wines exhibit voluptuous blue/black fruit, dusty tones, hauntingly complex, and framed with a firm backbone to merit cellaring.

An Oregonian native, winemaker and owner, Doug Tunnell swapped his CBS foreign press pass for the forty-acre hillside estate of Brick House. A staunch advocate of biodynamics, Tunnell deems BD a full circle, as healthy soil is the backbone for healthy plants which produce better fruit and wine, which in turn brings happier customers. Brick House Vineyards earned it’s Demeter-certification in 2005. Brick House wine line up includes Cuvee du Tonnelier Pinot Noir (oldest vines), Evelyn’s Pinot Noir, Les Dijonnais Pinot Noir, Select Pinot Noir (entry level), Gamay Noir, and Chardonnay (whole cluster fermentation, unfiltered, french oak).

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Did you know that Oregon pioneered the American bio-dynamic movement?

Here is one instance where sustainability is not only accepted, it is encouraged, revered, and passionately pursued. While wine grapes are slowly but surely becoming a valuable asset, they remain just one of 220+ crops grown in Oregon.

Sip on this:

  • About 98% of Oregon’s farms and ranches are family owned and operated.
  • Oregon is #1 in the nation for Christmas trees, hazelnuts, loganberries, black raspberries, ryegrass seed, orchard grass seed, crimson clover, sugar beets for seed, red clover seed, fescue seed, blackberries, boysenberries, potted azaleas, and peppermint.
  • Oregon is #2 in the United States for the production of hops, snap beans, and spearmint.

Unpretentious, down right honest, passionate people bound by their unspoken and unwavering pledge to do good by our mother earth. There is a sense of purity and serenity that slowly envelopes you and sticks to your bones to do good. Hopefully with a glass of strawberry scented Oregon Pinot Noir.

100 points lauded to Orlando’s very own pinotphile and Oregon’s champion cheerleader, Mr. Silverberg for rocking all our sensory tastebuds, and enduring our motley crew’s idiosyncracies.

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Food for Thought: Pinot Noir from Oregon is not Burgundy, it would be blasphemy to compare it. Certainly not because Burgundy is ‘superior’.

‘Climat’ is a term used in Burgundy for a single-vineyard site. To understand the way climat is used, I think it helps to understand terroir first. Terroir is a French term that translates loosely into ‘sense of place’, suggesting how the the cumulative effect of soil, slope, orientation, climate, fog, sunlight hours, etc shape a wine’s characteristics. Given that terroir refers to this concept, then climat refers to an actual site that is inimitable because of its geographic characteristics or terroir.

And Oregon, my dear friends is precisely that – incomparable, swaggering it’s own signature soul.

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One Comment

  1. A very extensive, informative, comprehensive and extremely interesting article on Oregon Pinot Noir. Has certainly helped me understand more about Oregon’s role in the quality and consequent popularity of this wine.

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