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Finding Oregon’s Finest Pinots

Oregon is famous for two things: rain and Pinot Noir. F&W’s Lettie Teague endures drizzles and downpours to taste the state’s best wines.

How often does a cliché actually come true? Has absence, for example, ever made anyone’s heart grow fonder? (“Never” has pretty much been my experience.) And who has found greener grass on the other side of a fence—or anywhere else, for that matter? I did, however, realize the truth of a certain cliché recently when I took a trip to Oregon to taste Pinot Noir. During the four days I was there, it rained all the time. Sometimes in sheets, sometimes in torrents and sometimes in small but persistent amounts. Rain, of course, is Oregon’s best-known cliché, though the state’s winemakers would like it to be Pinot Noir. And perhaps Pinot Noir will supplant rain sometime very soon, especially after the wines from 2006, a.k.a. “the vintage of the century,” are consumed.

I traveled to the Willamette Valley, home to every important Oregon Pinot producer, for several reasons: to chat with some of the state’s top winemakers, to taste a few vintages (especially the 2006 wines) and to catch up on what’s been happening since I was last there. In fact, quite a few changes have taken place in Oregon in the past several years—though perhaps less dramatically than in, say, the past couple of decades, when the state shifted from a truly marginal grape-growing place to one virtually synonymous with this prestigious, if vexing, grape. And to hear Oregon’s winemakers tell it, the change has been almost entirely good. They’ve figured out how to work their vineyards, what clones to plant (Pinot Noir has a lot of different clones) and, of course, how to deal with all that rain. They’ve also figured out how much (or more often, how little) new oak to use. As a result, they’ve gained quite a lot of confidence. And enjoyed a great deal of success. But all that doesn’t seem to have gone to their collective heads—at least not yet.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to collectively exist is a single style of Oregon Pinot Noir. Many Oregon Pinots are relatively light-bodied and delicate—i.e., more Burgundian—while others are bigger, more structured and feature more new oak. For example, at Domaine Serene, the emphasis is on Pinot Noirs with a lot of new French oak—i.e., more Californian. Domaine Serene is a highly regarded estate located in the heart of the Willamette Valley, with a devoted following for its Pinots.

When I stopped by Serene one rainy morning to chat with winemaker Tony Rynders, I found that he had assembled bottles from various vintages ranging from 2002 to 2005 (his 2006 wines weren’t available for tasting—they weren’t even in bottles yet). He’d also opened his Coeur Blanc, a “white” Pinot Noir that he’d made from pure Pinot juice and limited contact with the skins. An interesting oddity, it tasted a bit like a Pinot Blanc and a bit like a Roussanne, a key grape of the northern Rhône.

Rynders, an intense fellow in his mid-forties with spiky gray hair, spoke so rapidly it was hard to believe he grew up in the Midwest. We met over a well-polished table in a well-polished room in Domaine Serene’s visitors’ center. (Domaine Serene is one of the few Oregon wineries with fancy tasting facilities; many still operate out of garages.) Rynders paused to draw the curtains wide, letting in a feeble bit of light. “This weather can really get to you,” he muttered. “One month it rained 30 days straight.” (Was he talking to himself or to me?)

I wasn’t sure if it was the ceaseless rain that was putting Rynders on edge or my questions regarding his use of new wood. He’s one of a handful of producers who uses a significant amount of new French oak in the making of his Pinots, sometimes as much as 100 percent. At times it was quite noticeable, as with the enormously oaky and extracted 2003 Monogram (a tiny production wine, and at $200, perhaps the priciest Pinot Noir in Oregon—though it tasted more like Cabernet to me). In other cases, the oak was less obvious, as with several of Rynders’s 2005 wines, such as the promising Two Barns Vineyard bottling, a ripe, sweet Pinot with a wonderful purity of fruit.

There has been a movement among Oregon producers away from large amounts of new oak, as they’ve found that it can often mask the fruit. And fruit that’s delicate and subtle, with a firm acid backbone, still defines Oregon Pinot Noir. It’s what distinguishes Oregon Pinots from their California counterparts, at least according to its producers. “California Pinot can get overripe,” one Oregon producer commented to me. “Like raisins,” said another, a bit more derisively.

Of course, overripe fruit is a problem in more places than California, as winemakers all over the world wait longer and longer to harvest their grapes. But overripe fruit is particularly unattractive in Pinot Noir, as the result can be “un-Pinot-like” wine that’s big, unbalanced and high in alcohol. This doesn’t happen very often, however, in the Willamette Valley, which has a long, cool growing season that allows Pinot Noir to become fully or “physiologically” mature. (Oregon’s winemakers once liked to point out that the Willamette Valley is on the same latitude as Burgundy. Never mind that certain parts of Michigan are as well.)

Oregon Pinot producers today tend to feel a bigger rivalry with California than they do Burgundy. Of course, back when Pinot was first planted in Oregon four decades ago, there weren’t many California Pinots around (and few of them were very good). When it came to Pinot, there was pretty much only France, which, ironically, gave Oregon Pinot Noir its first bit of fame. When David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie South Block Reserve Pinot Noir placed second in a competition in Burgundy (less publicized than the famed Paris Tasting that put Napa on the map), Burgundian winemaker Robert Drouhin was actually moved to invest in the state. He founded Domaine Drouhin in 1987 and put his daughter, Véronique, in charge.

There were, however, years of problems ahead, as Drouhin and everyone else discovered—a lot of bad weather, and a lot of winemaking mistakes. But according to Josh Bergström, a burly, self-described “young turk,” Oregon producers have “figured a lot of things out.” Bergström, who has garnered a great deal of positive press, made his first wines in 1999, the year he returned to Oregon from enology school in Burgundy and founded Bergström Winery with his family. Coincidentally or not, 1999 was also the year that Bergström proclaimed to be the “turning point” for quality Oregon wine. Bergström makes Pinots in a big, oaky style, a bit over-the-top, though a Bergström wine that I particularly liked was more restrained: the 2006 de Lancellotti Vineyard Pinot, a bright, charming wine with lots of crunchy, sappy fruit and an impressively long finish. Bergström, like many Oregon producers, is focused on single-vineyard wines, although unlike most, he is looking to use grapes from his own vineyards rather than from famous vineyards like Shea (which sells fruit to several producers, who then make Shea-designated wines). But most of all, Bergström said, he was looking to capture the vividness of Oregon fruit, its “boisterous, lush character.”

I found a lot of that boisterous, lush character in the wines of St. Innocent, which I visited the following day. The winery was under construction when I arrived but is scheduled to open this spring, in time for bottling and brides—indeed, much of the space will be allotted to an enormous wedding hall, according to winemaker Mark Vlossak. Were they counting on attracting couples who believed rain on one’s wedding day brought good luck?

“I really liked my 2005 wines,” Vlossak said to me as we tasted through the wines of that vintage, as well as those from 2006. “I think they have more structure and more acidity, while the 2006s are more obvious, hedonistic wines.” This was certainly true of many Vlossak-made Pinots, particularly his 2006 Temperance Hill bottling—a big, exuberant wine. The 2005 White Rose, however, from one of the region’s oldest vineyards, was also an impressively rich and weighty wine, with a real savory quality, almost as hedonistic as its 2006 counterpart.

Of course, hedonism doesn’t seem to have much hold in Oregon (or perhaps it doesn’t have much opportunity to flourish). But its absence has steeled its winemakers in a school of adversity, meteorological and otherwise. Indeed, they seemed remarkably well-suited to struggle. One refrain I heard much-repeated throughout my travels was how useful their past difficulties had been, how much they had learned. As a result, according to Rynders, Oregon winemakers now knew so much that California winemakers came north to study their results. “A lot of great California Pinots have been made by producers coming to Oregon to analyze our wines,” he said.

If those same California winemakers had an interest in Oregon’s soil, they probably also made a point of chatting with Ken Wright, a man whose passion for Pinot is nearly outstripped by his obsession with soil. Wright worked with Rynders at Domaine Serene and has been making wine in Oregon for more than 20 years. He is one of its most prominent figures—though his Ken Wright winery, a gray-shingled barn in the town of Carlton, is pretty anonymous-looking. In fact, I accidentally drove past it three times.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much wine there, anyway; most of Wright’s 2006 wines had been sold out for months. (Wright is one of the first producers to release his wines—as much as a year earlier than most other winemakers.) He did, however, have a presentation prepared: A large easel equipped with several sheets of white paper and a few pens had been set up next to some barrels. “Let me show you something,” Wright said and plucked a pen from the tray of the easel. He made a quick sketch of a vineyard trellising system. “This is the way we position our vines today,” he said, following it up with a deft rendering of Willamette soil.

“This is the Mother Rock,” said Wright, continuing to sketch with impressive speed. “It’s what lies beneath our vineyards. When you start thinking about the Mother Rock, you can really taste it,” he added, and gave me a penetrating look, as if intent on making a sedimentary conversion. “Can we taste the wines now?” I asked. “Just one more sketch,” he replied.

Wright is nearly as well known as Rynders for his use of new oak, though he has reputedly reduced the amount in recent years. Nevertheless, his wines still tend to be quite oaky in their youth—dense and muscular. This was particularly noticeable in the more structured 2005 vintage, which Wright showed along with a few 2006 wines. His 2005 Shea Vineyard and Nysa Vineyard Pinots, for example, were still quite tight and austere. His 2006 Abbott Claim Vineyard and Savoya Vineyard bottlings were, by contrast, exuberantly fruity, with bright cherry notes and a clear thread of acidity. Both had that boisterous, lush fruit that Bergström had described.

“Did Ken give you an art show?” asked Tony Soter when I arrived at Soter Vineyards a few miles away, up a long, twisting drive. I picked my way through the mud to the door. How did Soter know? “Ken loves to talk about the rock,” he laughed. “You mean the Mother Rock,” I replied.

Soter first achieved fame for making great California Cabernet; he was the consulting winemaker at Spottswoode and Araujo and later at his own estate, Etude, where he also made excellent Pinot Noir. (Soter has since sold his winery to Beringer Blass Wine Estates, though he remains as a consultant.) But the Oregon-born Soter wanted to make wine in his native state, and so he bought some land in 1997, and a year ago he moved his family to Oregon.

Soter’s first Pinot Noirs came from the Beacon Hill Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton district, and they earned him a solid following and much praise. (His 2002 Beacon Hill Pinot Noir was a Food & Wine American Wine Award winner in 2005.) But Soter, ever restless, sold the Beacon Hill Vineyard in 2005 to develop his 250-acre Mineral Springs ranch, which he’d planted to Pinot Noir in 2002. Most of it still remains undeveloped (only 15 acres are currently producing), and quite a few acres are given over to grazing goats.

Soter brought out both the 2005 and 2006 Beacon Hill Pinots (his last from the vineyard) for our tasting, as well as the 2005 and 2006 Mineral Springs wines. The Mineral Springs wines showed great promise—marked by notes of red fruits and good acidity. The 2006 was particularly impressive, with a subtle but persistent finish. The Beacon Hill wines, on the other hand, were still very tight. Did Soter, who has made many top wines in California, think that he’d done as well in Oregon? He gave a modest laugh. “I’m just trying to establish credibility,” he replied. “Otherwise, this is just a great place for goats.”

Mike Etzel, a genial fellow in his mid-fifties, turned out to be equally modest, though he produces some of the most sought-after wines in Oregon under the label Beaux Frères. In fact, his may be the only “cult” winery in Oregon. But on the morning we met, Etzel was a little under the weather owing to some overindulgence the night before. He had shared a few bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir with friends, along with some oysters, and followed it all with a white Burgundy whose name he couldn’t recall.

“What do you want to taste?” Etzel inquired as he began searching for a corkscrew. “2005? 2006? Something older?” “Yes,” I answered—all of the above. Etzel, who has been making wine since 1991, produces three Pinots Noirs: Beaux Frères Vineyard, Upper Terrace and a basic Willamette Valley bottling. They tend to be big, powerful wines, especially the Beaux Frères Vineyard, which can age for decades, unlike many Oregon Pinots. “People say we make the Cabernets of Oregon, and that hurts my feelings,” said Etzel with a mock doleful look as he finally secured a corkscrew.

These were certainly some of the deepest-flavored Pinot Noirs I’d ever had, especially the first wine that Etzel opened, the stunningly rich and powerful 1994 Beaux Frères Vineyard. Hailed in its youth as one of the best wines of the decade, it was remarkably bright. “My brother-in-law likes this, too,” Etzel noted when I offered words of praise. “But I prefer wines with less power, more finesse,” he said. (Never mind that his brother-in-law is famed wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., who is a partner in the winery and hence doesn’t review Beaux Frères wines.) He opened several more bottles and found a few more to his liking (I was happy with them all). Etzel was especially fond of the 2001 Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir, which we agreed was drinking beautifully. Though the vintage is generally regarded as good but not great, it was a wonderfully balanced, albeit comparatively delicate, wine. Etzel’s 2005 and 2006 Beaux Frères wines offered a snapshot of the two vintages: the former tight and closed, the latter opulent and lush, with loads of crunchy fruit.

So, did Etzel like the idea of making wines that were so sought-after they inspired a bit of a cult? He gave what I’d come to consider a typical Oregonian reply: “That’s not my goal,” he said, quite firmly. “I like to make a wine that people can enjoy. My goal is simply to make a wine of complexity and depth, without obviousness.”

And that was pretty much what i found in my four days of Oregon travel: winemakers intent on making the best wines that they could, wines that weren’t a reference to Burgundy or a challenge to California but that were a true expression of Pinot Noir, and of Oregon itself. And while they were (mostly) modest about both their intentions and accomplishments, they were quietly confident, too. They had, after all, figured out what to do—whether it was how to get fruit ripe, where to find the Mother Rock or how to cope with all that rain. Of the latter, Mark Vlossak offered this insight: “There are direct flights from Portland to Honolulu leaving four times a day.”

Published April 2008
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