Northwest Corkage: Oregon’s Wines
Benefiting from the state's cool climate, Oregon's artisan winemakers give European Pinot Noirs some serious competition.
Oregon wine is, almost by definition, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Pinot is a notoriously difficult grape to grow, but when it’s done right, as it sometimes is in its original home of Burgundy, the results are sublime. This is what leads so many winemakers to continue to seek this viniferous holy grail.
The trouble is Pinot Noir is a cool-climate grape. You can grow it in sunny California, but all too often the result is a creamy, jammy, slightly sweet wine that bears no resemblance to fresh fruit but is all too reminiscent of the canned variety.
In cool-climate Oregon, however, Pinot can yield wines with real verve and dash—nimble, elegant wines with sufficient structure and acidity to allow them to work well with food.
The Oregon wine industry also functions on a far smaller scale than the more familiar California version, with the average winery producing just 5,000 cases per year. Doug Tunnell in many ways represents a typical picture, or at least the romantic version thereof. A maverick, he is owner, grape grower, winemaker and chief bottle washer of Brick House Vineyards, which produces about 4,000 cases per year, and he has no wish to grow any bigger.
He operates out of an old wooden barn that looks like a cross between a disorganised antique shop and a small winery. There’s a coiled hosepipe hanging on a wooden pillar and a stack of barrels behind the leather sofa occupied during my visit by Gamay Rouge, his red setter. There’s also some very good wine, in particular his Pinot Noir Les Dijonnais, which is fresh and lively, but with a wonderfully dusty, mellow finish.
The nascent Oregon wine industry received a huge boost in 1987 when Robert Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s premier wine producers, made the unprecedented decision to build a new winery in Oregon, believing he could make Pinot Noir as good as his French versions. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of that decision. At one stroke it conferred a mantle of legitimacy on the emerging region. “In many people’s minds, the Drouhin investment in Oregon was a significant endorsement, marking the transition from BC to AD,” says Ted Farthing, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board.
Steve Doerner, the unassuming but widely acclaimed winemaker at Cristom Vineyards, makes some of the most renowned Pinot in Oregon using a more hands-off, Old World technique than is common in most New World regions. He makes limited use of new oak barrels and emphasises whole cluster pressing, a technique that gives the wine structure and backbone, what he calls “nervosity.”
In this his wines epitomise the emerging style of the Pacific Northwest in that they fall somewhere between the lushness of California and the lean elegance of Europe. They have the lovely ripe fruit you find in California but less oak and more acid structure, while showing the restraint and delicacy one gets in good Burgundy and Bordeaux.
This is minimalist winemaking, an attempt to let the wine taste of the vineyard, the soil, what the French call terroir, rather than being a showcase for the winemaker’s art.
A sampling of the many great Oregon wines I encountered in my travels. Wine-Searcher.com is an excellent resource to purchase one of the vintages recommended in this story.
Bethel Heights Southeast Block Reserve Pinot Noir 2002: This 28-year-old vineyard produces a wine that’s lush and plush, complex, and layered with multiple earthy, mineral components. It is piquant and fresh on the front palate but with a long finish with dusty, cedar elements and hints of sage overlaying cherries and blackberries.
Brick House Pinot Noir Les Dijonnais 2002: This one is still fresh and lively but with a wonderfully dusty, mellow finish. Closed and unyielding at first, it opened up very prettily after 30 minutes in the glass, so it will likely be another five years before its peak.
Chehalem Wines Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay 2000: Lustrously demonstrates Harry Peterson-Nedry’s contention that it’s possible to make fine, age-worthy Burgundian-style Chard in Oregon. All elegant richness, integrated oak and pure, refined fruit balanced by good acidity that lasts through the long finish.
Cristom Vineyards Pinot Noir Mount Jefferson Cuvée 2001: Mount Jefferson is this estimable winery’s entry-level wine—but what an entry-level wine! Winemaker Steve Doerner sums it up best: “It has a more European kinda style to it. New World Pinots are so fruit-driven, but in this one the fruit’s restrained and other things are coming through, the minerality and texture.”
Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Reserve 2002: Just bursting with fabulously bright, red-berry flavours—all raspberries, strawberries and summer sunshine. Still young and fresh, it will improve for at least another decade, probably more.
Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir 2006: Winemaker John Grochau—formally assistant to Doug Tunnell at Brick House Vineyards—has crafted what even he describes as a floozie of a wine, a wine that’s easily approachable and a lot of fun. For more seriousness, power and finesse, look for his 2004.
St. Innocent Freedom Hill Chardonnay 2006: A classic example of a cool-climate New World Chard. Fermentation and ageing in old oak barrels on the lees results in an elegant wine more in the style of a Chablis Grand Cru. A Chardonnay for people who think they don’t like Chardonnay.
Domaine Drouhin Laurène Pinot Noir 2004: The current release of Domaine Drouhin’s barrel select cuvée has a gorgeous, full-mouth feel with round, soft tannins, integrated acidity and lovely fruit that make this a happy wine—un vin joyeux—which will provide hedonistic early drinking before older vintages mature.