Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Willamette Valley pinot noir comes of age

Adelsheim’s Bryan vineyard in Willamette Valley, Ore.
Adelsheim’s Bryan vineyard in Willamette Valley, Ore.

San Francisco is a popular destination to celebrate a 50th anniversary, even for folks from far-off Oregon.

Late this summer, representatives from 65 Oregon wineries gathered at the Presidio in San Francisco for “Pinot in the City,” a party to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first pinot noir planted in Willamette Valley.

As the name suggests, the festivities were mostly about pinot noir, the grape variety and varietal wine most closely identified with the rolling Willamette Valley, an American Viticultural Area – 100 miles long and 60 miles across at its widest – between the Cascade Mountains and the Coastal Range, running from Portland to just south of Eugene.

David and Diana Lett planted 3,000 vines of pinot noir in the Dundee Hills southwest of Portland in 1965. No other vitis-vinifera vines had been cultivated in Oregon since Prohibition, but David Lett, who had studied at UC Davis, suspected that Williamette Valley’s varied soils and cool climate would yield solid pinot noir.

It took awhile for his confidence to be affirmed, but today Willamette Valley accounts for almost 90 percent of Oregon’s pinot noir production. The area boasts 440 wineries, up from five in 1970. Vineyards now cover 17,237 acres of the valley.

The allure of Oregon for pinot noir has been further substantiated by the influx of several California vintners, along with such wine royalty as the Robert Drouhin family from Burgundy, Brian Croser from Australia and wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. from Maryland, all of whom have invested in the variety in Willamette Valley.

So what sets apart Willamette Valley pinot noir today? To get a handle on its appeal, I tasted about 40 of them from the nearly 200 being poured. My takeaways:

Color: Californians will be surprised. By and large, Willamette Valley pinot noir is lighter in color than most takes on the variety from California. Several were so light in color they could have been mistaken for rosés. But that light color was deceiving. Almost without exception, the wines featured aromas and flavors that spoke clearly and cleanly of spirited and sunny fruit. Drew Voit, owner/winemaker of Harper Voit Wines at Gaston, was pouring two of the faintest-colored pinot noirs of the day, his 2013 Strandline ($42) and his 2013 Perrydale Hills ($55); both were intense with fresh fruit aroma and flavor, lean and angular but solid builds, and acidity with sharpness and tang. The Perrydale Hills had a bit more weight and creaminess, but both were balanced and seamless.

Where’s the oak? As with color, Oregon vintners have no problem with the less-is-more philosophy when it comes to exploiting oak flavor and tannin. An early issue with Oregon pinot noir was that so many had been aged overly long in new barrels of French oak, the result being that several tasted more of char and vanilla than the cherry and strawberry fruit that distinguishes the varietal. But the state’s winemakers have dialed back on the wood, acknowledges Harry Peterson-Nedry, founding winemaker of Chehalem Wines at Newberg. “Balance is more important today, even for people new to the industry trying to make a splash,” he says. “In the old days they asserted themselves with oak.”

Price: As a reflection of both demand and confidence, not many Willamette Valley pinot noirs are priced for everyday consumption. By Oregon standards, an inexpensive Willamette Valley pinot noir starts at $20. On top of that, you don’t have to look far to find a Willamette Valley pinot noir priced at $100 or more. But those higher prices invariably were justified by the plateaus, potency and persistence that the wines uniformly reached.

In that vein, standouts included the vital and briary Chehalem Wine 2012 Willamette Valley Ribbon Ridge Ridgecrest Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir ($80); the rich and perpetually unfolding Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2013 Willamette Valley Pas de Nom Pinot Noir ($100); the earthy, jammy and minty Beaux Freres 2007 Ribbon Ridge Beaux Freres Vineyard Pinot Noir ($120); the elegant and razory Bergstrom Wines 2013 Dundee Hills Bergstrom Vineyard Pinot Noir ($85); and the ripped and tenacious Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2012 Dundee Hills Laurene Pinot Noir ($70).

Nevertheless, if your definition of value includes wines in the $20 neighborhood, Willamette Valley also is delivering positively impressive pinot noirs, several of them downright charming for their friskiness and their fidelity to the seductive attributes of the varietal – bright fruit, reserved tannins, refreshing acidity and structures that while lean are sturdy enough to pair with fairly rich foods. Along that line, look for the vivacious, meaty and spicy Left Coast Cellars 2013 Willamette Valley Cali’s Cuvee Pinot Noir ($24), the smoky and zesty Stoller Family Estate 2013 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($25), and the substantial yet lilting Longplay Wine 2013 Chehalem Mountains Jory Bench Pinot Noir ($38).

Aging: Three decades ago, while at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, I rounded up several pinot noirs just starting to draw attention to Willamette Valley. I didn’t open any for a few years, and when I did I was disappointed by how they’d lost their fruit and spunk. At the San Francisco tasting, however, several vintners brought along older vintages, which by their enduring vigor and their compelling blend of bottle bouquet and billowy fruit showed that the region’s pinots now are aging much more handsomely. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to lay down Willamette Valley pinot noir for a 50th anniversary or some other special occasion.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.