Wish They Were Here : Oregon Pinots and Beyond

The WineAlign crew spends a lot of time on the road. We visit wine regions around the globe, learning, tasting, and experiencing first hand everything from the established classics to the latest releases. Inevitably, we come across wines we wish we could find back in our home markets, wines that engage and enthrall and tell a compelling story. Although the various Canadian provincial monopolies do their best to represent the world, full coverage is impossible and corporate selection mentality rules, that is to say, quality alone does not always earn you a spot on Canadian shelves.

We’ve created this series, Wish They Were Here, as a forum to share our adventures on the wine route, to highlight underrepresented regions, unknown producers, cuvées not yet seen in Canada, or vintages yet to be exported in the hopes that liquor board buyers, agents and private importers might tune in and get some inspiration. It’s also a mini travel guide for readers who go on their own wine safaris, offering a list of bottles to track down.

Wish They Were Here: Oregon Pinots and Beyond
By Treve Ring

Based in Victoria, I’m fortunate to visit Portland and the Willamette a few times annually. In fact, the driving time from Vancouver is about the same to the Willamette as it is to the Okanagan (five hours, not counting the US/CAN border). But to me, these two west coast regions couldn’t be more different; different scale, scope and result.

Treve drinking Pinot among the Pinot vines, Dundee Hills

Treve drinking Pinot among the Pinot vines,
Dundee Hills

The Willamette is where I retreat to recharge, to reconnect and to disconnect, to eat deliciously prepared and unpretentious food, walk in the vineyards and really talk with the winemakers. Sure, there are big producers in the valley, and we see their wines on our shelves at home. But I’m most interested in seeking out the smaller players, those with handcrafted wines, generally farmed sustainably and produced collaboratively, and the price reflects the quality – notwithstanding the cross-border tax. Smaller production plus the aforementioned markups mean that we rarely see the great stuff on our markets.

Drink Pinot Think Oregon. The tagline of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, much like the wineries themselves, is direct, confident and B.S.-free. The WVWA is a non-profit dedicated to achieving recognition for Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a premier pinot noir producing region, and planted roots back in 1986 with 11 member wineries. First officers at inception included iconic names in Oregon wine history today: Dick Erath, Bill Blosser and David Lett. These pioneering wineries are still members today (along with nearly 200 others wineries) and undeniably their names stand synonymous with pinot noir.

Pinot Noir coming in at Sokol Blosser Vineyards

Pinot Noir coming in at
Sokol Blosser Vineyards

Yes, absolutely, Oregon makes outstanding pinots – some of the pinot noir I’ve tasted in the Willamette stand shoulder to shoulder to Burgundy, in my humble opinion, and are among my favourite pinots in the world. But Oregon is much more than pinot. On recent trips I’ve been blown away by riesling (intense, vibrant, electric), chardonnay (freshness, elegance, restraint) and pinot gris (creamy, focused, concentrated). Throughout travels in Oregon I’ve also been enamored with pinot blanc, viognier, grüner veltliner, blaufrankish, tempranillo, syrah, counoise, barbera, cabernet franc, müller-thurgau and muscat.

Sounds unfocused? Sounds akin to BC’s wine history to me: new regions, diverse geography, unproven soils, let’s plant stuff and see what happens. Winemaking in Oregon really took root in the 1960s, with UC Davis students heading north to practice this “cool climate viticulture” they’d studied. Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath brought their families to the North Willamette Valley, established vineyards, and were the first to plant pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling – the four top varieties for Oregon. These first vineyards are still producing fruit – highly sought after fruit – now. After sanitizing my shoes in a footbath to prevent the spread of phylloxera (many vineyards are own rooted, with wineries fending off the root louse’s spread as long as they can) I walked through The Eyrie Vineyard with David’s son Jason Lett. This sacred slope is THE original site of pinot noir and chardonnay planted in the Dundee Hills in 1966, and the site of the first pinot gris planted in America.

Many more pioneering families followed suit – Adelsheim, Ponzi and Sokol Blosser are just a few familiar names. However it wasn’t until David Lett, a.k.a. Papa Pinot, entered his Oregon Pinot Noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades and won top honors against Burgundy’s best, that the world began to recognize little outback Oregon as a serious winemaking region.

Dundee Hills

Dundee Hills

Since those early days, not that long ago, Oregon has grown into 15 approved winegrowing regions and more than 300 wineries producing wine from over 70 grape varieties. The Willamette Valley is the heart of Oregon wine, and is a huge and varied appellation that includes six sub-appellations; Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill Carlton. I noted three major types of soils across the valley: marine sedimentary, Jory (volcanic, red, basalt) and loess/silts. In general, I found pinot noir from the Dundee area’s Jory soils to be more perfumed, delicate, fruited-floral and feminine, while Pinot Noir from Yamhill Carlton and Ribbon Ridge’s marine sedimentary soiled areas to be stonier, more structured, minerally and masculine.

The valley streams south-west from Portland, nested between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, and is more than 100 miles long and spanning 60 miles at its widest point. Travel is easy (wine country is a quick 30 minute drive from Portland), towns are small and close together, the highways are lined with vines, Christmas tree farms, hazelnut groves and farms, and the foodstuffs as genuine and authentic as it comes. The Willamette Valley feeds the fervent locavore Portland food scene – see Portlandia for backgrounder.

As with the foodstuffs, sustainability governs the viticulture. In the 2011 vintage, 47% of Oregon’s vineyards were certified sustainably farmed, the most common programs found being LIVE, Organic, and Biodynamic. Every year I’ve been visiting I encounter more and more practicing biodynamics, and for the first time this past harvest, met winemakers producing natural and orange wines as well.

And finally, Oregon is simply a beautiful place, very easy to immerse yourself in. When you head on down yourself, seek out these wines and the people who make them. And please, when you Think Oregon, don’t just Drink Pinot.

My Willamette Wish They Were Here List:

Matello Wines Whistling Ridge Pinot Noir 2011
Matello is my favourite Oregon producer, and Marcus Goodfellow is one of my favourite winemakers period, determined to not “dumb down” his wines, end quote. This beautiful mineral-driven small lot (100 cases) is from Ribbon Ridge and its marine sedimentary soils. www.matellowines.com

Love & Squalor Fancy Pants Riesling 2010
Matt Berson sees himself a “fruit preservationist” first, and it propels his search for stellar vineyard sites around the Willamette from which to blend his wines. http://loveandsqualorwine.wordpress.com

Johan Vineyards Drueskall Pinot Gris 2012
This biodynamic estate in Rickerall received Demeter biodynamic certification, and is a breeding ground for not only biodynamic groundbreaking in Oregon, but also for exciting grape varieties (Melon de Bourgogne, Blaufrankish, Gruner Veltliner). Drueskall is an intriguing orange wine. www.johanvineyards.com

Matello Wines Whistling Ridge Pinot Noir 2011Love & Squalor Fancy Pants Riesling 2010IMG_0347

The Eyrie Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2010
Established 1966, home to David “Papa Pinot” Lett, and the place that literally put Oregon wine on the world stage. Operations are now ably overseen and led by next generation Jason Lett. Their Estate Pinot Noir 2010 is from their ‘younger’ vineyards, planted in the 1980s. www.eyrievineyards.com

Westrey Wine Company Abbey Ridge Pinot Noir 2011
Westrey Wine Company was founded in 1993 by co-winemakers Amy Wesselman and David Autrey, today, two of the Willamette’s leading wine resources. Abbey Ridge is one of the older sites in the Dundee Hills, and the 2011 Pinot Noir exemplifies the perfumed Dundee style. www.westrey.com

Minimus Wines No. 5 Reduction
Chad Stock doesn’t release vintages, just experiments. Minimus is a series of one-offs, centered on satisfying Chad and his wife Jessica’s insatiable curiosity, and founded on their bare-bones philosophy of making “fermented grape juice in a bottle.” Reduction is Experiment #5 in the series. www.minimuswines.com

The Eyrie Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2010Westrey Wine Company Abbey Ridge Pinot Noir 2011Minimus Wines No. 5 Reduction

Other Willamette Wineries to Watch For :

Archery Summit
Andrew Rich Wines
Big Table Farm
Brooks Wines
Domaine Drouhin Oregon
Elk Cove
Evening Land Vineyards
J.K. Carriere Wines
Ken Wright Cellars
Montinore Estate
Patricia Green Cellars
Sokol Blosser
Shea Wine Cellars
Stoller Family Estate Vineyards
Owen Roe
Walter Scott Wines