Oregon: Stunning Pinot Noir, suspect Pinot Gris

The most expensive bottle of wine I ever bought was a Pinot Noir. A Burgundy from a great vineyard, by a well-known producer, in an exceptional year. I opened it expecting fireworks; instead it pissed on my bonfire. It barely tasted of anything. I returned to it every day like a jilted lover, hoping it would eventually come to its senses. Still nothing. Gutted. But it won’t stop me buying this variety again. Because when it sings, nothing can touch it.

Pinot Noir suffers serious mood swings. One day it’s attractive, charismatic, easy-going: the next, surly, resentful and monosyllabic. Many wines go through phases as they develop, waves of being open and drinkable or closed and muted, like biorhythms. But nothing fluctuates quite like Pinot. They don’t call it the ‘heartbreak grape’ for nothing. So in a two-fingered salute to Burgundy (who’s the moody one now, I hear you cry) next time I’m going to get my Pinot kicks from Oregon.

Geologically speaking, Oregon is a relatively new bit of Earth. Six hundred miles north of the Napa Valley in California, it rose out of the sea not so many million years ago, and it still bears the scars of volcanoes. To these marine and volcanic soils has been recently added what Howard Rossbach, President of Firesteed Cellars describes as “exotic, old soils from the Rockies”.

Around 14,000 years ago, Lake Missoula, 350 miles northeast of Oregon at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, flooded. The enormous ice dam that kept the water enclosed slowly melted and eventually shattered, allowing a biblical surge of water to escape and race to the sea at speeds of 80 miles per hour, flattening everything in its path. This happened 35 times over a period of 2,000 years, each time depositing a fresh layer of mountain soils throughout Washington and Oregon.

From these exotic soils come countless fascinating Pinot Noirs. It is often said that Burgundy is the most complicated of wine regions, but there is a good deal of subtlety and nuance of style to explore here too. In fact Oregon now has more area planted with this variety than the Côte d’Or, the heartland of Burgundy*. Many still grow on their original rootstocks. The vines are on average 15 years old, and the oldest a mature 40 years (pretty venerable for North America).

Although Oregon would be described as ‘New World’, it has a relatively cool climate; it is on the same latitude as France and Germany, so expect flavours more akin to Burgundy and German Spätburgunder rather than fuller Californian or Chilean Pinots. Stylistically it lies somewhere between Burgundy and New Zealand.

They do grow some other grape varieties in Oregon but nothing comes close to their Pinot Noirs. Of the total area, 59% is planted with Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Gris, 5% Chardonnay, 4% Riesling and the rest with various others. I don’t get on with Oregon Pinot Gris. Admittedly I have only tried around ten, but all too often they have been very full-bodied without the flavour to back it up. Often featuring ill-defined apricot, peach and banana flavours, they have mostly been very boozy and lacking acidity. The best retain freshness and concentration of flavour, and can be enjoyable food wines; the worst are like drinking flavourless alcoholic jelly that has the off-white pinky pallor of a ghost with a hangover. I’ll keep trying, I’m sure I’ve just been unlucky…

The wines are produced mostly by private estates (there are currently around 450 in Oregon), though there are a good number of contract growers who sell their fruit for others to vinify. This region only exports around 5% of its total production, so although these wines still aren’t as easy to find as Californian wines, more and more of them are finding their way abroad. At least 30 wineries now have UK agents. Take a look on www.wine-searcher.com or email kate@hilltopwines.co.uk for more info on where to find them in the UK. Be warned though: they aren’t cheap.

One sub-region in particular to keep an eye out for is the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area – like the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC). It is almost exclusively planted with Pinot Noir, and some of the finest expressions originate from here. I was told that to pronounce ‘Willamette’ properly, rhyme it with ‘damn it’. Which is something I’ll undoubtedly find myself saying again and again after future moody bottles of Pinot Noir. But I’ll never give up on it completely.


Some highlights:


Firesteed, Oregon Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£15.45 available at www.slurp.co.uk

Pale in colour, but not lacking in flavour. Earthy cherry on the nose and a whiff of bonfire. Pure red and black cherry fruit with a lick of soft tannin and good refreshing acidity. Nicely balanced. 2008 was a great vintage in Oregon, and it shows. 89 points, good value.

Rex Hill, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2009
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£20.99 available at West Mount Wines www.westmountwine.co.uk 

Ripe strawberry and raspberry, this could easily be mistaken for a Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy). Soft firm tannin, very pure and long. Alcohol shows just a little bit but otherwise well-balanced and very appealing. 90 points, fair value.

Domaine Drouhin, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2009
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£22.75 available at www.slurp.co.uk

Quite meaty and earthy but perfumed. Long and layered. Slight dirty funkiness giving it complexity and interest. Not unlike a Beaune Champimonts 1er Cru (Burgundy). 92 points, fair value.

Brooks, ‘Janus’ Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£24.95 available at Stone, Vine and Sun www.stonevine.co.uk though not yet online

Smoky bacon on the nose, raspberry and cranberry on the palate. Dry, slightly farmyardy and very drinkable. Balanced and long. Very good. Stylistically akin to a Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy). 92 points, fair value.

Shea Wine Cellars, Estate Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£31.00 available at Goedhuis www.goedhuis.com 

A bigger style of Oregon Pinot Noir. Darker fruit flavours, blackberry, plum, hint of leaf tea. Full-bodied, with ripe tannins and slightly sweet fruit flavours. Oak flavours still quite prominent in a cola/cough sweet undertone. Decadent, slightly exotic. 91 points, just about fair value.



* Burgundy, Côte d’Or: 5, 500ha under vine, 80% Pinot Noir = 4,400ha in total (Source: http://www.thewinedoctor.com/regionalguides/burgundypart07.shtml).  Oregon: 7,600 ha under vine, 59% Pinot Noir = 4,484ha in total (Source: Howard Rossbach, President of Firesteed Cellars, London, January 2012)