by Tim Fish
Oregon is the most dynamic wine region in the United States right now. This is evident in Willamette Valley, the state’s breadbasket of Pinot Noir, in particular, where new producers and vineyards are invigorating the scene and veteran winemakers are upping their game. The sense of discovery and opportunity has the region buzzing.
The progress and passion are reflected in the wines, and consumer appreciation is spreading in kind. Once sold predominantly around the Pacific Northwest, Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs are increasingly found in wineshops in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. According to the market research firm Nielsen, Oregon Pinot sales by volume increased an impressive 17 percent nationally in the year ending in October 2017, compared to just 2 percent for domestic Pinot Noir overall.
The wines are finding more space on restaurant wine lists too; both Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are ideal to drink with food, hence the appeal for sommeliers. The best versions combine the fresh fruit profile of California bottlings with the acidity and savory tension more typically found in Old World wines. For those who have followed Oregon wine, it’s satisfying to see these versions getting the wider recognition they have long deserved.
The higher profile of Oregon, and specifically Willamette Valley Pinot, is the result of multiple factors, including years of trial and error and the rapid improvement of winegrowing technology. The selection of Pinot clones has expanded dramatically, for example. Forty years ago, the valley was limited largely to Pommard and Wädenswil clones, but by the early 1990s Dijon clones such as 777 became available to the state’s vintners. Now they have dozens of clones to work with, each with specific flavor profiles and ripening schedules, and geared to different growing conditions.
Likewise, knowledge of Willamette Valley terroir has been refined and new growing regions identified. Though the greater Willamette Valley AVA was approved way back in 1983, its subappellations came much later, with Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton in 2005 and Chehalem Mountains and Eola-Amity Hills in 2006. The Van Duzer Corridor became Oregon’s 19th AVA in late 2018.
Large wine companies based outside Oregon, such as California’s Jackson Family Wines and Burgundy’s Louis Jadot, have made significant investments in Willamette Valley in recent years, and high-powered winemaking consultants—often from Burgundy—are also boosting the valley’s reputation.
‘People have always made good wine here,’ says Larry Stone, who launched his Lingua Franca winery in 2015. ‘We’re kind of a renovation of what the pioneers did. We’re redefining ripeness. It’s a fusion with the philosophy of Oregon’s pioneers: fresh and lighter wines, with acidity.’
Jeff Meader, who just finished his 13th vintage at Eminent Domaine, puts it this way: ‘We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. We just had to listen and learn from their mistakes.’
Those giants include ‘Papa Pinot’ David Lett, who came to Willamette Valley in the mid-1960s and established Eyrie Vineyard. That era also introduced Dick Ponzi, Dick Erath and David Adelsheim, who built cult followings for their namesake wineries but toiled as relative unknowns in the greater wine world in those early years. These pioneers suspected Pinot Noir would thrive in the valley, but planted Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as well.
One major turning point came in 1987, when Rollin Soles founded Argyle and Burgundy’s Robert Drouhin bought land in the Dundee Hills to establish Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Many wineries now considered icons followed within a few years: Beaux Frères, Ken Wright, Brick House and Domaine Serene, to name a few…
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