In the latter half of the 1960s, we lived in Oregon's Willamette Valley. At that time in that place, mushrooms, blueberries and Christmas trees were the most eagerly anticipated crops of summer and fall. They're still in demand today, but a comparative newcomer, wine grapes, just might eclipse them in popularity and romance.
As a measure of the growth and esteem of Oregon's vineyards over the past half century, some 70 Willamette Valley vintners occupied the Golden Gate Club on the sprawling grounds of San Francisco's Presidio the other day to show off current and pending releases.
Mostly, they poured pinot noir from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Other grape varieties are grown in the Willamette Valley, but pinot noir is the big duck on the pond. Of the 20,400 acres planted to wine grapes in Oregon, 12,560 are dedicated to pinot noir, 90 percent of which is in the northern Willamette Valley, stretching 100 miles south and west from Portland.
Since 2008, which was a long and gentle growing season in Willamette Valley, yielding pinot noirs of exceptional authority, elegance and charm, Oregon has weathered a succession of difficult vintages. The 2009 growing year was hot, producing a crop that exceeded 40,000 tons total for the first time. Poor fruit set in the spring of 2010 was followed by an unusually cool summer, cutting production by 22 percent and leading to the latest harvest on record. That record stood for only a year; 2011 was even cooler and damper, pushing the picking of grapes even later and exacerbating issues with powdery mildew and bunch rot.
After those obstacles, did Willamette Valley's vintners have much to brag about in San Francisco? To judge by my tasting tour through the Golden Gate Club, I'd say they do. Despite the hardships the valley's growers and winemakers have faced in recent years, and despite the relative youth of the Oregon wine culture, several of the wines showed that the region's more northerly setting, generally balmy days and cool nights - and not as much rain as often suspected - provide a splendid if occasionally dodgy environment for pinot noir. My experience with Willamette Valley pinot noir, even after tasting 40 of them in San Francisco, is too limited to draw any broad conclusions about how they compare stylistically with Californian or Burgundian interpretations of the varietal, but on their own they more often than not spoke to the vibrancy and complexity for which first-rate pinot noir is celebrated.
This much was clear, however: The Willamette Valley is a region where the variables of the vintage are readily apparent in its wines. By and large, the 2009 pinot noirs being poured were notably heftier and warmer than the 2010s. It's an area where accumulated experience and knowledge pay off in more reliable and proud expressions of the grape; in other words, start your exploration of Oregon pinot noirs with vintners who have been working in the area for many vintages. And it's an area where marked differences in interpretation of pinot noir can be traced at least in part to the distinctive features of the valley's six sub-appellations, which include Chehalem Mountains to the north, Eola-Amity Hills to the south, McMinnville over on the west, and tiny Ribbon Ridge tucked into the north-central reaches of the valley.
The variables of the vintages aside, the pinot noirs generally had an appealing clarity and spunk to them. Fruit flavors were fresh and charming up front, while finishes tended to be invigorating if not especially long. I've mixed feelings about the use of new French oak in the valley. Much of it is heavy-handed, upstaging the delicacy of the fruit but admittedly producing a style lush, sweet, smoky and robust that isn't without its exotic appeal. All that French oak, coupled with the challenges of growing grapes in a region susceptible to setbacks that can range from herds of deer to early and persistent fall rains, helps explain why Oregon pinot noirs tend to be pricey; rare is the Willamette Valley pinot noir that has something erudite to say that isn't priced at least $30.
At any rate, here are my favorites from the tasting; they may not be readily available in California, though participating producers generally have North State distributors and were confident that at least a few cases would make it south of Yreka:
- Omero Cellars 2011 Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir ($35): This was one of the few 2011s on hand, and it won't be released until January. Ribbon Ridge is new to me; it's a small appellation more or less between the towns of Yamhill and Newberg west and south of Portland, and reputedly is warmer and drier than the valley floor. Omero Cellars is a relatively new winery, only about four years old. Nevertheless, and contrary to my earlier advice that consumers unfamiliar with the Oregon wine scene stick to the releases of longtime players, this pinot noir, while still tight from its recent bottling, was invitingly expressive in both smell and flavor, with a beckoning current of smoke and an overall equilibrium that made it one of the major hits of the tasting.
- Antica Terra 2010 Eola-Amity Hills "Antikythera" Pinot Noir ($100): OK, this was my favorite wine of the day, a conclusion I reached before checking the price. This is one magnificent pinot noir. When pinot noir is described as a "noble" wine, this is what they have in mind, and not a mere prince, but the king himself. It's a bit eccentric, but that's what we expect in kings, right? In its richness, earthiness and enduring complexity, it contradicts the notion that only wines of finesse and restraint can be expected from the vintage of 2010. I wish I'd talked more with Antica Terra winemaker Maggie Harrison, the former assistant winemaker at highly regarded Sine Qua Non of Ventura, where owner Manfred Krankl must have been a mentor worth emulating. She left reluctantly for Oregon in 2006, but came to recognize that Willamette Valley could yield "incredibly powerful" pinot noirs, and she concluded that she wanted to be instrumental in harnessing that power. "I saw that Oregon was capable of producing wines that would be incredibly special, and if someone was going to do it I wanted it to be me," she says today. She has. The wine is to be released in November. She made 190 cases. Maybe 12 cases will make it to California.
- Chehalem 2010 Willamette Valley "3 Vineyard" Pinot Noir ($27): Winemaker Wynne Peterson-Nedry dealt with the difficult vintage of 2010 by paddling upstream, contrary to the growing practice of vineyard-designated wines. She blended fruit from three different vineyards, thus the broad "Willamette Valley" appellation for this wine. The wine highlights the beauty of pinot noir. It is deceptively light in color, but in nose and on the palate delivers all sorts of complexity, from sweet cherry and berry fruit to earthiness suggestive of a damp forest on one of those drippy mushroom-hunting excursions we pursued back in the day. What's more, the wine packed one of the longer and more twisting finishes of the day.
- Colene Clemens Vineyards 2010 Chehalem Mountains "Victoria" Pinot Noir ($58): An inviting lesson in how to deal with a vintage that gives you a lighter wine than you'd like - get the grapes as ripe as you dare, then put the wine into a whole bunch of new and little-used oak barrels. The result is a highly aromatic wine lush with strawberry, raspberry and cherry fruit and enough smoke to set off the fire alarms in any restaurant in which it is poured.
- Domaine Drouhin 2009 Dundee Hills "Laurene" Pinot Noir ($65): The folks at Domaine Drouhin knew what to do as the heat of 2009 lingered; they picked early, and as a result they retained their reputation for pinot noirs of sublime elegance. No heavy use of oak here as vintners respected the brightness and delicacy of the fresh berry fruit they were able to gather from a vintage recognized largely for muscle and heat.
- The Eyrie Vineyards 2010 Dundee Hills Estate Pinot Noir ($35): The Eyrie Vineyards, the true pioneer of pinot noir in Willamette Valley, starting in 1966, continues to benefit from its devotion, not letting the troublesome vintage of 2010 obscure its mission to release pinot noirs assertive and complex. Very little oak was applied to this wine, letting the fruit deliver a message of both robustness and elegance with rare equilibrium.
- Iota Cellars 2010 Eola-Amity Hills Pelos Sandberg Vineyard Pinot Noir ($36): Don't let the moderate color and restrained alcohol (12.9 percent) fool you, this is one fully developed pinot noir. The integration of fresh sweet fruit and smoky oak was pulled off with exquisite dexterity.
- Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($45): Another example of the pricise dovetailing of clean fruit and new oak, yielding a wine with classic pinot-noir aroma followed by fruit in equal measures of candor and grace.
- Sokol Blosser 2009 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($38): Light in color for such a heavyweight vintage, but nevertheless true to Oregon's reputation for veins of minerality running under fruit and herb flavors suggestive of peppermint, strawberry and rhubarb.
- Soter Vineyards 2011 Oregon Planet Oregon Pinot Noir ($20): By far, the best buy of the tasting. It's light in color and lithe in structure, but its bright fruit is punctuated with a dash of pepper and a staple acidity that will show why pinot noir is considered one of the more adaptable and accommodating wines at the dinner table.