At more than 50,000 tons harvested annually in Oregon, pinot noir is one of the dominant red grape varieties in the Pacific Northwest, trailing only Washington cabernet sauvignon, which weighed in the past two vintages fall at more than 60,000 tons.
While we tend to think of the Willamette Valley as Oregon’s primary pinot noir country, the noble red grape of France’s Burgundy region shows well in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, as well as the cooler Columbia Gorge region around the town of Hood River.
When one considers the Willamette Valley’s six federally approved smaller American Viticultural Areas (with at least two more going through the approval process), this means there are a growing number of fascinating microclimates for pinot noir lovers to explore in Oregon. If this seems obsessive to you, keep in mind that Burgundy has more than 100 recognized growing regions, appellations that can be further divided by vineyards and vineyard blocks.
By any measure, Oregon pinot noir is easier (and much less expensive) to navigate than its French equivalent.
The 32nd annual International Pinot Noir Conference would be an ideal way to explore this variety, and a few tickets remain available for the July 27-29 weekend on the campus of Linfield College in McMinnville. It is arguably the West Coast’s most educational, entertaining and delicious wine festival. And this year, the number of Pacific Northwest celebrity chefs (60) nearly matches that of the wineries (70) from around the world.
Below are several examples of Oregon pinot noir that won gold medals at this spring’s Cascadia International Wine Competition, and four of them are produced by wineries selected to pour at IPNC this summer. Ask for them at your favorite grocer or wine shop or better yet, contact the wineries directly.
Coeur de Terre Vineyard 2015 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $22: This spring, Scott and Lisa Neal celebrate the 20th anniversary of their move to Oregon, and this young pinot noir is an exceptional example. Its nose displays cherries, spice and a bit of cedar, then on the palate, lush cherries, spice and spot-on acidity create a satisfying mouthfeel. The elegant structure and juicy tannins reach under the tongue and blossom into a finale of cherries and violets.
Duck Pond Cellars 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $28: The Fries family farms more than 1,000 acres in Oregon and Washington, and this bottling focuses on grapes from their five vineyards in the Willamette Valley. Juicy and jammy, ripe boysenberry and plum, mingle with white pepper, oregano and a touch of mint. Light tannins allow the fruit to shine.
Youngberg Hill 2015 Cuvée Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $35: Wayne Bailey continues to release wines as beautiful as his iconic wine-country inn atop Youngberg Hill near McMinnville. Aromas of rose petals, strawberry and cranberry are joined by hints of espresso and mocha. The palate follows through with balanced flavors of strawberry, cherry and cranberry, with a hint of smokiness in the background of this light-bodied and delicate pinot noir.
Yamhill Valley Vineyards 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir, McMinnville, $40: Longtime winemaker Stephen Cary died earlier this spring, and he worked on this release with his protege, head winemaker Ariel Eberle. This remarkable tribute and elegant example opens with entrancing aromas of oak, forest floor, cherries and spice. Inside, those cherries and spice dominate, leading to smooth tannins and perfect acidity in the finish.
Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards 2015 Winemakers Reserve Pinot Noir, Umpqua Valley, $42: Bright aromas bounce from the glass, showing off dusty cranberry and bright raspberry. The palate has beautiful balance of smoky rhubarb, cranberry and just the right touch of smoke.
Stave & Stone Wine Estates 2016 Broken Boulder Vineyard Dukes Valley Block Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge, $42: Thanks to winemakers such as Hood River native Rich Cushman, the Columbia Gorge is making a name for itself in the world of Oregon pinot noir. The Dukes Valley Block of Broken Boulder Vineyard, practically in the shadow of Mount Hood, results in a wine that sports cherry and cedar aromas, followed by pure red cherry flavors that finish with crisp acidity and abundant minerality.
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2015 Tualatin Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $55: This publicly owned winery pulled from one the Oregon’s oldest plantings in the foothills of the Oregon Coast range for this pinot noir. Joe Ibrahim crafted a smooth wine with rich cherry and spice aromas, cherry, raspberry and spice flavors, and smooth tannins and crisp acids that hang on in the elegant finish.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com