I still remember when I set eyes on Oregon’s wine country, Willamette Valley. It smelled of perfumey Pinot Noir – wafting up through the vineyards, wineries and through my hotel window. It was harvest of 2007 and I fell in love. With Oregon Pinot Noir. The love continues to this day.
Willamette (rhymes with ìdammitî) Valley is the main grape-growing area and one of the first wine regions (aka AVA) established in Oregon. It’s about an hour south of Portland, straddling the mountainous coastline. A major reason for Willamette’s success is the vast temperature fluctuations during the spring and summer growing season, allowing the fruit to develop acids ó a crucial element in creating complexity in wine, especially Pinot. Over the years, distinct winegrowing regions have emerged and now the state has 17 AVAs that wineries often indicate on the bottle to educate customers. But many keep Willamette Valley on the label because they’re likely blends of several AVAs.
2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Pinot Noir plantings in Oregon. In 1965, wine pioneer David Lett settled into the Willamette Valley, brave and hopeful as he rooted the grapevines. Now, this finicky, cool-climate grape reigns prolific in this region, produced mainly by small producers crafting less than 5000 cases per year. Which makes Oregon Pinot Noir such a joy to explore – many different interpretations of the same grape create a smorgasbord for wine lovers.
I’ve tried quite a few Oregon Pinot Noirs lately, and the vintage difference is just as striking there as in California. Emerging from a chilly and rainy season, 2011 wines have higher acids, more red fruit and lighter body since the grapes didn’t get as ripe. By contrast, the 2012s and 13s enjoyed more even temperatures, created riper, heavier-bodied (by comparison), fruit-forward wines with balanced tannins and acids. What a difference a year makes.
I’m partial to the 2011s, which have developed beautifully over the past couple of years, however, they might be tough to find at this point. But if a winemaker can make tasty wine during the challenging year, they can rock the easy vintages. Here are a few I’ve found in my recent explorations.
Youngberg Hill 2011 Jordan Pinot Noir
Founded in 1989, Youngberg Hill Winery sits atop a hillside covered with 50 acres of organically farmed vineyards. Their philosophy revolves around creating small-batch, lovingly tended Pinots. The care shows in the bottle. Affectionate and bright, this perky Pinot offers red cherry and cranberry, acid galore and a mushroomy, slightly peppery earthiness. It’s very light bodied and reserved with a strong black tea and candied cherry finish. A fantastic food wine. This is clearly a solid winery that knows how to handle Pinot Noir. This Pinot Noir retails for around $50 and the current vintage wines are available on the Youngberg Hill website.
Vidon Vineyard 2011 3 Clones Chehalem Mountains
Located in the Chehalem Mountains, Vidon Vineyard is a super-boutique winery that produces hardcore Pinot. Vicki and Don founded the winery 15 years ago, on the premise that minimal intervention in the vineyards and in winemaking creates better wine. They even use the cool glass closures that are all the rage in Europe to prevent cork mishaps. They’re on to something. The 3 Clones Pinot Noir showcases dark cherry, tart raspberry, roasted hazelnuts, earthy cedar and mild, dusty tannins. Restrained, delicately balanced and coy, this wine is already showing some luscious age on it. Find the 2012 vintage on the Vidon Vineyard website for around $40.
Ponzi 2013 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley
Solid Oregon Pinot Noir from a fabulous founding family in Willamette. The Ponzis have been making wine in Willamette since 1970, when Pinot Noir was just coming on board. They’ve been thriving ever since. This approachable wine offers up black fruits of cherry and plum, warm notes of vanilla, baking spices and a dash of black pepper. Moderate, smoky tannins and well balanced acidity. Has a light hearted personality, like it could fit in at any party, anywhere. $20- $25 on the Ponzi website and at retailers nationwide.
Left Coast Cellars 2013 Cali’s Cuvée Willamette Valley
A winery that prides itself on commitment to sustainability and social responsibility, Left Coast Cellars is a relative newcomer to the Oregon Pinot Noir scene – in 2003. They produce five different Pinot Noirs, indicating an admirable level of geekiness. The 2013 Cali’s Cuvée (named after the founders’ daughter) presents a flirty, acid-lover’s wine with tart cherry and cranberry, a swath of mushroom earthiness and some tannins which stand up and say hello. Pure, beautiful Pinot Noir and very food friendly. Find this wine on the Left Coast Cellars website for $24.