Thursday, August 30, 2018

Pinot Noir In The New Millenium: Oregon Is The New California

Once upon a more innocent time, Oregon vintners fancied themselves descendants of the Burgundians, making cool climate pinot noir that strived to be lean, nuanced, and acidic.  Chardonnay was similarly styled, though the better money was in pinot - especially after Sideways.  On a business trip to Portland around Y2K, I stole a half day to check out the Willamette Valley.  Tucked in between intermittent car dealerships and stretches of dusty hills were tasting rooms and wineries unconvincingly proclaiming those Burgundian roots.

On that same visit, I asked a bartender at a local wine bar what value-priced pinot noir he suggest I try.  Whatever it was left me wanting, but when he told me that it was $67 a bottle, I laughed out loud and promptly exited the building.  There was a pious feel to the place, the wines were nothing special, and the prices were every bit as jaw-dropping as Napa - a strange combination for a place desperately trying to get out of California's shadow.

Meanwhile, California pinot was sort of a rebel's folly.  Not much of it was made, except in Santa Barbara county and the Santa Lucia Highlands, places that were (and to some degree still are) backwater hickvilles.  Pinot was hard to farm, difficult to market, and, itself living in the shadow of merlot.  But it tasted unlike any other grape and a lot of what was being made was good.  I remember wondering not only how Oregon was going to compete with California, but why they'd want to. Then came Sideways.

I haven't been back to the Willamette Valley since that trip, so I can't comment on whether it's a more welcoming vibe, but in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, Oregon winegrowing and winemaking has become more mature and sophisticated, and it shows in the wines.  They're more expressive and appealing, satisfied with their own identity rather than borrowing from European cousins.  The region has earned its success, no longer playing second fiddle to France or California.  If you need proof, just check out how much shelf space is devoted to Oregon pinot vs other places at your local retailer.  It might not be equivalent, but it's probably close.

As the planet warms and tastes evolve, California pinot is now typified by concentrated flavors of candy, cola, and syrup.  Blech!  This is not good, nor is it unique to pinot noir, but at the same time, richness and potency have also moved north into Oregon.  Anymore, Oregon's pinots taste like yesteryear's Californians.  Which make this an interesting time.  At the extreme end of this sits the Wagner family's (Caymus, Belle Glos, and formerly Meiomi) Oregon venture, Elouan, which tastes like a slightly less artifical (but no less antiseptic) version of Meiomi. However, moderacy still exists.

Case in point is the 2014 Iris Pinot Noir Oregon ($20). Iris is over 100 miles south of the Willamette Valley in the foothills of the Oregon Coastal Range. Acidity? Check. Varietal character? Check. Balance? Check, check, and check.  This wine is the whole package without being showy, overt, or expensive. 

So, if Oregon is the new California, is California the new Australia?

1 comment:

  1. It was interesting to read this blog about the excellent state of today’s Oregon Pinot Noirs. I’ve been distributing Oregon wines as my main specialty since 1985. The Oregon wines of yesteryear described in the blog and the producer’s attitudes about them, however, don’t bear any resemblance to what I’ve experienced during my 100 or so multi-day visits to Oregon wine country over those 33 years. Conversely, the producers I’ve spoken with, while often being inspired by and admiring Burgundy, always made it a point that they were not trying to make Burgundy, but rather, the best Oregon Pinot Noir they can.

    A half day is enough time to see 2 or, if in close proximity, possibly 3 producers. I’m not certain who you visited but it sounds like not the better producers and certainly not enough of them to judge the Willamette Valley wine scene fairly. Or maybe they were excellent producers and your palate changed since the year 2000 as evidenced in your 7/21/18 blog that proceeds this one, where it’s stated, “As my personal tastes gravitate away from largess and toward wines of distinctive acidity, I’ve wondered about the impact years of tasting wine have had on my preferences.”

    Tangentially, the interesting thing to note about any Willamette-Burgundy connection, is the fact that 4 out of 5, or perhaps 9 out of 10 Burgundians that start new ventures, plant their new roots in Oregon. And there’s lots of them.

    I hope you do make it back to the Valley and that you will have more than a half day to explore. 6 days would be ideal so that you could spend one full day in each sub-AVA of the Valley. Much indeed has changed since your last visit, not least of which was the establishment of these AVAs.


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