At an event with 115 wineries represented, it's hard to figure out how you're going to attack it. So when M.C. Ice and I hit the High Museum Wine Auction Trade Tasting in Atlanta a few weeks back, we needed a strategy.
I go to this event every year, and although the wineries represented are super high quality, they're a little homogeneous -- they are pretty much all from Napa. That was still the case this year, but I was so excited to see that there was more diversity (Taylor Fladgate was in town for it, hence my Port tasting. We also had an amazing experience with Chateau Palmer from Bordeaux, which I'll write about next). The most notable thing -- more Oregon producers than usual. And they were all located together, which made for an amazing learning opportunity. Rather than hit the California producers, MC Ice and I decided to get a pulse on Oregon by trying as many of the producers as possible.
So what happened? This served to solidify some things I'd found in the past about Oregon wines. I haven't made it to that region yet (on the list), but I've tasted most of 20 -30 wine brands that are available widely and the experience at the tasting seemed to reinforce what I had already suspected.
Oregon, although it has lots of different sub-regions and is expanding its varietal set, is pretty much a two-headed monster: Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are the big dogs with a bit of Chardonnay and Merlot as supporting players and other grapes here and there. When I think Oregon, I think Pinot Noir.
That's not to say that this couldn't change with time. The largest, oldest, and most developed area in Oregon is the Willamette (wil-LAM-it) Valley, sandwiched between the coastal mountain range in the west and the Cascades in the east. Other regions like the Umpqua, Rogue, Walla Walla, Columbia Gorge, and Snake River could and will develop with time and given their very different locations and climate profiles, different grapes could rise to prominence.
Regardless of how things shake out, one thing I really like about Oregon: they focus on organics and have a commitment to good farming that protects the land. This is a green place (if you've seen the show Portlandia, I'm sure you understand. If not, get on it because it's hilarious).
But to keep this relevant to us, right now I'm going to limit this post to just dealing with what's "out there"/what we may be able to get our hands on and that's Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley.
Willamette has 6 smaller regions and each is slightly different but to generalize, the Valley has a fairly moderate climate. It's rainy during the fall and winter, dry and warm, but not hot, in the summer. The cool pockets on the slopes of the bordering mountain ranges make for an excellent environment for Pinot Noir, which doesn't like it too hot. The vineyards mostly lie in the foothills of the coastal range and wines vary in flavor due to the diversity of soil types up and down this 150 mile long valley.
Their biggest challenges here: with pretty infertile soil and a cooler climate, you're not going to produce a ton of volume. That means the wines are generally more expensive because there are fewer bottles made. Also, because the weather can be erratic and Pinot is picky, the viticulturists sometimes have to decide to pick the grapes before they're ready either to avoid punishing fall rains that cause rot and flavor dilution (too much water to the roots and the grapes drink up, losing their flavor) or to escape the flocks of migrating birds, which apparently can rip apart a vineyard in an hour (Hitchcock would have LOVED to film that, no?)
Before I get into the taste profile of Oregon Pinot, one last note -- the sub-regions of the Willamette Valley are Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, McMinnville, Eola-Hills Amity, Dundee Hills, and Yamhill-Carlton. I can attest and will address that it really does make a difference where the wine is from.
Oregon Pinot Noir
I'm sure that my friends in Oregon may have a bone to pick with me because I'm going to make a generalization, however I think the profile of Oregon Pinot Noir is:
- Very high acidity, which make them good with food
- Fruity (lots of cherry and red berry flavor)
- Moderate to high alcohol (13%+)
- The flavors vary...a lot
To break it down more, MC Ice and I found that, for the most part (there are exceptions, of course, but this should help to give you an idea of what's out there), there are two really distinct camps of Oregon Pinot Noir.
Wine type 1: Fruity cherry cola
The first type is common in wines from the general Willamette Valley (not specific subregions) -- a blend of grapes from across the region.
Color: These wines are usually bright ruby -- like raspberry juice. Although lighter than most California Pinot Noir, which can be blood red, the color indicates that the wines come from ripe grapes with lots of color in the skin.
Smell: I always smell a few things in these Pinot Noirs and at this tasting it was even more pronounced because I was smelling the stuff side by side by side:
- Strawberry, red cherry, and raspberry (from the grape)
- Floral smells -- like old school Herbal Essence shampoo from the 80s that came in a green bottle with a Lady Godiva looking chick on the bottle (see right. This is from the grape, most likely)
- Either mocha, coffee, or a burnt flavor (from oak)
- What I perceived as acetone/nail polish remover, but which Pam Walden of Daedulus, whom I LOVED and pay homage to below, told me was what people refer to as "cherry cola"
It's that last point that's the real game changer for me and where these wines lose me -- can't stand that quality, but I digress.
Taste: While I appreciate that this type of wine out of Oregon is very popular, I can't get on board with the flavors of oak and cherry cola, which I think taste very manufactured and artificial. The thing I love about Pinot Noir is that it's generally pretty complex in flavor -- meaning it has a lot going on. I love that the grape shines with very little human intervention if it's grown well. When I taste a ton of oak or char, or this cherry cola flavor, which I suspect is caused by the interaction of the grape and the oak used, I feel like I'm drinking something not-so-natural. My nose is really sensitive to that smell and it's hard for me to get past it.
However I want to be clear that this NOT a flaw in the wine, nor is it something that everyone dislikes. You see it a lot in Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, California as well, and it's usually called out in the description of the wine because so many people enjoy it.
Wine Recos for this style: If this is your cup of tea (or cola, as the case may be) here are a few widely available wines that will fit the bill: Adelsheim, Rex Hill, Van Duzer, Erath, and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Fermented Pinot Noir (their single vineyard wine is not in this style, but more like the next style, so be careful).
Wine Style #2: Earthy, Spicy, Complex
Color: These wines are usually lighter in color -- pinkish or brown around the edges.
Smell: Like the first type, they smell like raspberry, cherry, and strawberry but they have a prominent earth or dirt quality to them. They can smell like savory herbs (more like sauteed thyme or rosemary, not like herbal essence shampoo), bacon, and flowers. The distinguishing factor here is that there are low notes in the wine -- like a dark forest -- damp soil, tea leaves, and dried fruit.
Taste: These generally taste pretty spicy -- with either black pepper or some sort of warm Asian or Middle Eastern spice (like cardamom in Chai tea or cumin). They have good acid and mild tannin and are really savory. The acid seems more balanced for me because of the warm spices in the wine. I find these wines are more in the vein of Burgundy, and that may be because the producers are using grape/vine clones from France that are similar to the wines that have these flavors.
Either way, I've found that when wines are from Dundee Hills and McMinnville, they are more likely made in this style. Each have unique soil profiles -- Dundee has deep Basalt rock and McMinnville clay-like volcanic soil -- and I think that leads to these earthier flavors. If you like this style, watch out for the sub-appellation on the label. You may have to pay more, but it's worth it -- these are really unique wines.
Before I end, the post, I do want to give a special shout out to Daedalus Cellars. Pam, the winemaker and owner, started the place with her husband. She supported him as he learned how to make wine. They had two kids, but after working all day, she fiddled in the cellar at night to learn winemaking, and when they split up she bought the guy out and is now doing it sola. She was a sweet person, very sharp, and made great wines. They're one I will surely support both for the high quality and for the great story of triumph behind it!
So go out there and try Oregon Pinots and let me know if I'm off base. As Oregon produces more wine and the region gains more experience, the styles are bound to develop and change. But for now, I think this is where we are. Pinot Noir from here has a lot of promise and I'm looking forward to sampling more to see what else this very interesting area has to offer!