You could say that Oregon is a pinot noir bridge. The state’s most celebrated and successful wine style could generally be classified as somewhere between the heady, earthy pinot noirs of Burgundy – the grape’s ancestral home in France – and the fruity, jammy pinots of California.
Oregon itself, as a winemaking place, is suspended out there, too, proudly distanced from the more-established locales, independent and self-assured. That identity was not forged overnight. As with many places in the United States, grape-growing and winemaking in Oregon reach to the 19th century. But every state or specific region with a critical mass of wine production has a modern, readjusted date that indicates when things began to get serious, and commercial, and … better.
For Oregon it was the 1960s, when a Californian planted riesling, pinot noir and other varieties in the Umpqua Valley, and then a few years later another Californian planted pinot noir in the Willamette Valley, which would become the state’s largest and most-important region. That second pioneer was the late David Lett, known to this day as the man who kicked off Oregon’s run with pinot noir, earning him the nickname “Papa Pinot.” He had guessed that the long, cool growing season of Oregon would be well suited to pinot noir, and now, 50 years on, it’s clear that his hunch was on the money.
Not only did his early bottlings fare well against wines from around the world in the so-called Wine Olympics of 1979 and 1980, his success also helped propel the Oregon wine industry to where it is today. Hundreds of producers have followed Lett in setting up shop in Oregon, and a couple of them have come from France, recognizing similarities between the growing conditions in Burgundy and the Beaver State.
Close to 90 percent of Oregon’s pinot noir comes from the Willamette Valley, and about 10 years ago the region was divided into six sub-regions: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton District.
To list an Oregon wine region’s name on its label, 95 percent of the wine’s grapes must be from that region. This is a self-imposed stricter standard than elsewhere, as the law in the United States requires only 85 percent. As varietal wines go, to list a single grape name on an American label, the wine must contain 75 percent of the named grape variety. But again, Oregon places a higher burden on itself when it comes to its famed pinot noir: 90 percent. Oregon winemakers are also keenly focused on sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming practices because … it’s Oregon.
Below are a dozen Oregon pinot noirs from a recent tasting. Each is the least expensive pinot noir offered by the winery, and each is between $19 and $32. They are listed in alphabetical order.
2014 A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir. An elegant, layered wine full of red fruit, leather, spice and minerality from a winery that sources from vineyards across the state. $19
2014 Adelsheim Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Bright fruit, including black cherry and blueberry, are backed by lively acidity, baking spices and a hint of leather on the finish. $32
2014 Anne Amie Winemaker’s Selection Pinot Noir. This wine contains grapes from two Willamette Valley subregions, at high and low elevations, offering bright fruit (strawberry, cherry), acidity and minerality. $25
2014 Broadley Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Fruity and fun, this one is full of cherry and incense, with a balancing cranberry finish – a very nice wine for the price. $20
2014 Chehalem Three Vineyard Pinot Noir. Bright acidity ushers in cherry, orange zest and a tiny suggestion of smoke in this layered and balanced offering from the Willamette Valley. $32
2013 Cooper Mountain Vineyards Pinot Noir. Using grapes from the winery’s four biodynamic vineyards in northern Willamette Valley, this wine offers raspberry, cherry, a refreshing tartness and crushed rock minerality. $25
2014 Elk Cove Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Cherry, licorice and zingy acidity characterize this delightful wine. $29
2014 Erath Winery Oregon Pinot Noir. This famous producer’s wine is earthy and full of cherry, cranberry, citrus, orange and leather, with a tiny hint of cola on the finish. $19
2014 Montinore Red Cap Pinot Noir. Starting with Old World earthiness and moving into ripe cherry, vanilla, baking spices, incense and a hint of spice, this wine is a serious bargain. $20
2014 Ponzi Vineyards Tavola Pinot Noir. Herbal and floral notes give way to ripe fruit flavors of cherry, orange and even the suggestion of watermelon in this silky beauty. $27
2014 R. Stuart & Co. Winery “Love, Oregon” Pinot Noir. Balanced richness abounds in this one, from cranberry to blueberry to plum, and on to vanilla and leather. $28
2014 Roco Gravel Road Pinot Noir. Aged 18 months in oak and six more months in the bottle, this wine offers ripe dark fruit, tobacco and a touch of spice. $30