Travels in Oregon Wine Country

It was the French who were the first to require Oregon Territory wine back in the 1840s. After a tough day’s work for the Hudson Bay Company, a rustic red to pair with their venison stew was just the ticket. The first recorded local winery was established in the late 1850s. The ensuing Pacific Northwest wine industry was at budbreak when the hailstorm of Prohibition put the kybosh on the burgeoning trade.

110 years later, a few groundbreaking Californians packed up their station wagons and moved up north to a land that was damp and chilly by comparison. Pioneers “Papa Pinot” Lett, Dick Ponzi, David Adelsheim, Cal Knudsen, and Dick Erath kick started the second attempt at a viable wine industry with none other than the persnicketiest grape of all – Pinot Noir.

They persevered even though many believed the attempt in the valleys and rolling hillsides made fertile by all that rain, futile.

Pinot Noir is capriciousness embodied. And yet, that’s part of its allure. Pinot Noir is a demanding mistress of the vigneron.  To increase fruit quality, long, cool growing seasons are essential.  It can’t take the heat so it performs better in wine regions like foggy Burgundy, cool Champagne, New Zealand, California’s foggy Carneros, Russian River, Santa Barbara or mountainous Santa Lucia Highlands and drizzly Oregon.

But cooler regions have problems that warmer vineyards don’t. Early budbreak is risky  because spring frost can take out a good portion of the crop overnight.  Cool, damp vineyard sites are also more susceptible to mildew. In rainy climates, showers at harvest can be disastrous. Do we pick or do we wait? It’s a nail biter.

With its thin skin, Pinot Noir is like the princess and the pea, picky about where it’s planted and high maintenance, too. Each site has different exposures to sun, wind, rain and fog. As a result, Pinot Noirs are diverse because this grape is more susceptible to quirks of weather.

Some Pinot Noir clones are more prolific and others do better resisting mildew which is important considering the climate Pinot Noir prefers. It just depends on where and what you’re planting that determines what end result will be. Many Oregon viticulturists are now planting many clones in the same vineyard blocks for even greater complexity and insurance.

Did I mention that Pinot Noir is genetically unstable?  Pinot is the mutant ninja grape with more clones than any other wine grape variety. Around 100 clones, French (Pommard, Dijon) and heritage California selections, have been submitted to UC Davis for inclusion in their registration program. This type of information is helpful to figure out what to plant and where.

Oregon Pinot Noir made its first splash on the world wine map in 1979 when David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie Reserve Pinot Noir placed second in a competition in Burgundy. That was a milestone for Oregon wine.

At the inaugural 1987 International Pinot Noir Celebration, winemaker Robert Drouhin, owner of a large, prestigious French domaine with amazing vineyards in Burgundy was completely seduced. Domaine Drouhin Oregon was established shortly thereafter.

The Oregon wine industry has grown tremendously since those early days. Many winemakers and owners are transplants from California, France, Portugal, Iran and the Midwest. Today, the vast majority of wineries (702) are still small, family-owned operations, with a dozen or so large (60,000+ cases) wineries.

Oregon’s winemakers have worked hard and collaboratively to figure out where to plant their vineyards, what clones and rootstocks work best, and how to use new oak judiciously. They’ve gained quite a lot of experience and as a result, confidence.

Pinot Noir at its best is a grape capable of grace, finesse and elegance with an ability to express the nuances of a particular terroir. Here are some recently enjoyed Oregon Pinots:

In Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains, Anan Cara Cellars’ vineyards were first planted in 2001. Nick and Sheila Nicholas made the 2012 Reserve Estate Pinot Noir from ten-row sections in each block of the beautiful Nicholas Estate vineyard. The 2012 vintage was a fabulous vintage with warm summer days and cool evenings that ensured full ripeness at harvest. The wine is beautifully aromatic, silky with dark cherry fruit, spice and herbs. Mouthwatering acidity adds to the structure and preserves the ruby hue. The wine saw only 15% new oak barrels.

In 1989, with a Masters Degree in Viticulture and Oenology, Tony Rynders began a 20 year career making wine around the world before he opened his own Tendril Wine Cellars. He has contract vineyards sites in Eola Hills, Dundee and Yamhill-Carlton to make is wines. The 2013 Extrovert Pinot Noir is beautifully aromatic with Asian spices, hints of black fruits, cranberries and a great big long finish.

Domaine Serene’s winery is a 4-storied gravity-flow facility that takes care of the 227 acres of dry farmed, LIVE certified vineyards. This award winning winery is located on the top on Dundee’s Red Hills. Their 2014 Triple S Vineyard is planted to the Dijon clone 777. This wine had a noble Pinot nose, lovely balance and a fantastic lingering finish.

Founded in 1970, Ponzi Vineyards has accumulated many awards and accolades over the years. They have continually set the standards for award winning Pinot Noir.  Their state of the art four-level gravity flow winery is another standard set. Second generation winemaker Luisa was the first American woman to earn the Certificate Brevet Professionnel d’Oenologie et Viticulture in Beaune.

The pinnacle Pinot for me is the 2014 Classico, a blend of old and new vineyards, cold soaked to bring out the blackberry and spice in this beautifully balanced wine aged for 11 months in French oak with 35% new.

Another award winning winery, Stoller Family Estate is a 370 acre farm in the Dundee Hills AVA that has been in the family since 1943. First planted to vine in 1995, the 200 acres of vineyards are LIVE and Salmon Safe and planted to clones Pommard, Wadenswil, 115, 667 and 777. The sustainable winery and tasting room are LEED Gold Certified. Their 2015 Dundee Hill Mosaic is a delightful overview of elevations, vineyard ages and all clones of the estate. The aromatics are bright red fruits with hints of spice and the palate is silky with warm, sun ripened raspberries.

Oregon Wine Country is a wonderful wine-cation whether you make the drive or host a stay-cation tasting. Ultimately, it’s a great grape to research with family and friends.