During our last Grape of the Night (GOTN) group’s adventure we sampled the elegant Pinot Noir wines of Oregon. Oregon has been producing wines since before the time of prohibition. The proliferation of wineries in all areas of Oregon has been astounding. The wines from this region are cherished by many that enjoy the complex nature of this unique wine. What makes the pinots from Oregon so unique and different from those of California? One winemaker said, “the difference between ripe fruit and fresh fruit.” Thinking about that statement, I have to agree. Oregon wines generally have lower alcohol content, higher acidity, earthiness and complexity. This begins to parallel what one would expect from a French Burgundy.
Let’s look at the terroir of Oregon and see if there is a reason for the difference between California and Oregon pinots.
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In comparison to most California producers Oregon has a much cooler growing season than that of California. My guess is that the seasonal weather in Oregon is very much like France. This explains the reason for the statement ripe fruit (California) and fresh fruit (Oregon/France) eluded to in the previous paragraph by a winemaker. What about the earthy profile found in Oregon pinots? Soils in the Willamette Valley consist of rock and a calcareous marine layer deposited millions of years ago when western Oregon was underwater. The key factor here is rocks, and lots of them. This forces the grape vines to struggle for nutrients and water. This type of soil along with the weather are very characteristic of the terroir of Burgundy, France. Vines that are made to struggle produce small grape clusters as well as small berries. This rocky soil and lack of nutrients, such as nitrogen, is the reason that these wines have minerality. The fresh fruit descriptor is a result of struggling vines and cool climate which prevents the development of large ripe berries. If the soil was high in nutrients and water like California, the wines produced would present that ripe fruit that we see in California pinots. One thing to remember is that two grapes that dramatically reflect terroir in aroma and taste are Pinot Noirs for the reds and Rieslings for the whites.
After sampling wines and researching Pinot Noir wines from Oregon I now realize why my wife’s palate does not favor many of the wines produced in Oregon. They are more on the line with French style Burgundies which I enjoy. She is more of a California style pinot drinker. The low alcohol mixed with fruits that are not overpowering but layered in a unique complexity, then add some minerality and I am a happy camper with the pinots of Oregon.
So let’s look at the selection of Oregon pinots that were brought to GOTN.
2011 Row 503 Cellars
- Aroma: Cherry and burnt toast
- Taste: Dry cherry, tart, very burgundian in style
- Note: Soil at this winery is volcanic
2009 Maysara Estate Cuvee from Momtazi Vineyard
- Aroma: Light cherry and white pepper
- Taste: Red cherry and slight tartness
2009 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills
- Aroma: Earthy
- Taste: Pomegranate, soft tannins and a little tart on the finish
2011 King Estate Lorane Valley
- Aroma: Earthy, oak and cola
- Taste: Cola, dry finish, dried cherries; a very complex wine
2011 Domaine Drouhin Dundee Hills
- Aroma: Earthy
- Taste: Tobacco on the finish, dry tart cherry and smooth
2008 Bishop Creek Cellars Gaston, Oregon
- Aroma: Oak; very soft, almost nonexistent on the nose
- Taste: Cherry, little tart and soft on the palate
This tasting was probably one of the most unique and educational for me. Everything that I read in preparation for GOTN Oregon Pinot Noirs fit like a glove. Looking at all of the wines tasted and the characteristics you can see a trend in this varietal from this region. Remember in the first paragraph where I said that a winemaker explained the difference between California and Oregon wines saying, “the difference between ripe fruit and fresh fruit.” We know how fruity the California pinots generally are. But what about Oregon pinots and fresh fruit? If you have ever eaten a grape that is not quite ripe you get that tart taste, the same is true with a cherry. However, in each case you get that firm “fresh fruit” flavor and structure in the fruit. Look at the descriptions of the wines tasted. They were found to be tart, subtle fruits, dry, etc which is very much like French Burgundy. Add in the soil composition with low nutrients and now you have added the minerality that you also detect in French versions of this varietal. This was an outstanding tasting showing the uniqueness of this varietal. I never even mentioned the additional complexity created by the different pinot clones which is estimated to be between 200 to as many as 11,000 for Pinot Noir.
GOTN members, I want to thank all of you for providing such an education on this varietal to me and I hope that it did the same for you..
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I want to give my thanks to the Valencia Wine Company (VWC) for all of their support and help to allow us to continue to learn about the vast realm of wines that exist. VWC has always been a place to learn about wines through the proprietor, Guy Lelarge and the well educated staff.