Noir Gazing

A guide to the infinite galaxy of Oregon’s signature wine

By James Mcquillen May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2006 issue of Portland Monthly

Since David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards planted the Willamette Valley’s first pinot noir 40 years ago, the Burgundian grape has become the sine qua non of Oregon wine. The state’s pinots rival in quality those produced by the centuries-old vineyards of France, but their diversity can be disorienting to the novice pinot-phile. From Lett’s lean, subtle dinner companions to the mouth-filling, gobs-of-fruit blockbusters from Sineann, these wines practically span the oenological cosmos.

But enjoying them isn’t astrophysics; it’s mainly a simple equation involving three factors: vineyard, vintage and vintner. Think of each sphere as exerting a gravitational pull on this famously finicky and mercurial grape, and you’re on your way toward navigating the universe of Oregon pinot noir.

Noir gazing, if you’ll pardon the expression, involves looking not at the heavens, but at the earth: Pinot noir grapes are exceptionally sensitive to the minutiae of microclimate and soil. In viticultural terms, the thin-skinned fruit has a gift for expressing the quasi-mystical notion of terroir, which roughly means "sense of place." In the late Middle Ages, the monks who tended the first pinot vineyards in Burgundy noted that different patches of land yielded different characteristics in wine, and they drew boundaries based on what they smelled and tasted. So important are the effects of terroir on pinot noir that to this day it’s the place name, rather than the grape name, that goes on Burgundian labels.

While Oregon’s vineyards are comparatively quite young, their personalities are well developed, and vineyard designated wines provide a good sense of just how widely the flavor of the pinot grape can stray. Ken Wright has earned a cult following with voluptuous single-vineyard pinots–his Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir betrays a hint of chocolate, while his McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir possesses rich black-fruit flavors. Conversely, the Abbey Ridge vineyard supplies grapes to several Oregon labels, and you can taste its red fruits and spice in the otherwise very different vineyard-designated wines of producers such as Cameron and Westrey.

It may ease your confusion to learn that you can confidently drink these wines from almost any available vintage, since weather conditions in the Willamette Valley during ripening and harvest were unusually consistent during the seven years preceding 2005. But sun and rain aren’t the only things that vary from year to year. Much like hemlines, wines evolve with the culture, and over the last two and a half decades changing fashions have conspired with clement weather to bare the legs, so to speak, of Oregon pinot noir.

In its earliest vintages, local pinot more closely resembled its reserved Burgundian kin than it does now. Grapes typically ripened slowly through the warm days and cool nights of the Willamette Valley’s mild summers, retaining acidity and finesse. But in the 1980s the region’s wine industry, then growing explosively, experienced a number of unusually warm, ripe years, producing wines with higher alcohol and lower acidity. At about the same time, American wine drinkers–exemplified by the influential critic Robert Parker Jr–began to favor similarly big, opulent wines. Some Oregon vintners responded by delaying the harvest as long as possible, releasing a cascade of superripe pinots. A generally warming climate has only encouraged the trend.

Not all vintners followed suit. While many consumers have become hooked on luscious, fruity wines higher in alcohol, the uncompromising Lett and a few like-minded vintners chose to adhere to French precedent, rather than go big and jammy. "I like pinot noir to taste like pinot noir, not like some syrupy zinfandel," says Lett today. By picking earlier and resisting the temptation to extract every last bit of color and tannin, Lett and his compatriots–including David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard and Russ Raney of Evesham Wood–have continued to produce wines with higher levels of acid, lower alcohol content and subtler, more complex structures.

If there’s a note of contempt in Lett’s voice, he’s earned the right to bristle. He put Oregon on the map–and earned the nickname Papa Pinot–when his 1975 South Block Reserve took high honors in major competitions in France. One of the reasons the French like Lett’s wines is that they complement food: Their acid cuts through fat, and their demure character heightens, rather than overpowers, cuisine. Another clear advantage of this more restrained approach is longevity. Many of the superripe wines of 1994, a very hot vintage in the Willamette Valley, were nearly undrinkable by 1999, while Lett’s pinots, even from a famously dismal vintage such as 1984, have consistently held together–and improved–after 20 years or more. (You’re unlikely to find these older vintages, however, unless you’ve cellared them yourself.)

So where does that leave pinot tyros? Flush with choices, and ready to explore. Consider a fourth "v"–victuals. Will you be drinking with dinner? Cuisine-friendly pinots–the Eyrie’s Estate Reserve, Cameron’s Clos Èlectrique or St Innocent’s benchmark Seven Springs vineyard designate–favor straightforward flavors like salmon and rare beef tenderloin; wild mushrooms and game can bring out the wines’ earthy, gamey subtleties. A brooding Sineann Whistling Ridge, an Archery Summit Renegade Ridge or a Panther Creek Bednarik Vineyard might be better accompanied by naught but conversation or a fine view.

In the end, your choice may also depend on your preferred sort of seduction; some people like their gratifications immediate, while others prefer them elusive. In the broad spectrum of pinot noir, there’s something for sensualists of every stripe, because all pinots share a central mystery: They’re rooted in the earth, but their pleasures are celestial.

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