Oregon – a paradise for Pinot

Thursday, 16. July 2015 - 15:00

Ledger David, Oregon

Look at the old pictures, the black and white snapshots taken in the late 1960s and the early 1970s when the first grape vines were planted in Oregon, and they're full of men with beards, women wearing coveralls, and little children playing on tractors.

“And those were big, thick beards,” says Jim Anderson, the co-owner at Oregon's Patricia Green Cellars, with a laugh. “They weren't hipster beards. These were people who came here because they wanted to be here, because they believed in what they were doing, and they didn't want to do it anywhere else.  And there was no guarantee that what they were doing would work.”

This idea, that Oregon was little more than a home for California wine exiles who couldn't cut it in Napa or Sonoma, persisted for decades. Today, though, the US state produces world-class Pinot Noir, has made significant inroads with Chardonnay and Sparkling wine, and has developed its own style of Pinot Gris. In this, the state's wines are critically praised and accepted by consumers, and it has become the third-largest wine region in the country behind California and Washington.

Not bad for a state, as one of its winemakers put it, that zags when the rest of the world zigs.

“The people who came to Oregon in the first place were pioneers, not just because it was a new region, but because they had a different spirit,” says Thomas Houseman, the winemaker at the 15,000-case Anne Amie Vineyards, who previously worked for Ponzi Vineyards, one of the state's first producers. “They really didn't have an idea about what they wanted to do. They just figured it out as they went along. And that's still part of Oregon.”

Facts and figures

Oregon is located in the US Pacific Northwest, sandwiched between California on the south and Washington state on the north. The state lies between the 42nd and 47th north parallels of latitude, and the 45th parallel runs through its middle, and includes what's regarded as the best Pinot Noir country, around Dundee in the Dundee Hills AVA, situated toward the top of the larger Willamette Valley AVA. It's about 45 minutes southwest of Portland in the northwest corner of the state.

Those lines of latitude speak volumes to the state's terroir and grape-growing potential, given that Burgundy sits between the same lines of latitude. And, like Burgundy, most of the best Pinot Noir  regions are cool climate – wet, cool winters and dry, warm summers. Unlike Burgundy, though, Oregon's terroir is influenced by mountains; the Willamette Valley AVA sits between the Coast and Cascade ranges, and the Pacific Ocean is next to the western side of the Coast Range.

In addition, there are warmer areas, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the state, and this diversity is reflected in its 18 AVAs and sub-AVAs. So it’s not surprising that it's rarely possible to talk Oregon wine without someone mentioning micro-climates.

This idea of terroir was not lost on the men and women who came to Oregon more than five decades ago. David Lett, who started the 10,000-case Eyrie Vineyards in the Dundee Hills with wife Diana, who is credited with planting the first Pinot vines in the state in February 1965, had a viticulture and oenology degree from the University of California-Davis, perhaps the preeminent wine program in the world. Another pioneer, Dick Erath, also attended UC-Davis, while David Adelsheim was a German literature scholar and Richard Ponzi was a mechanical engineer. Stanford graduates Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser drove a 1968 Volkswagen camper on their trip from northern California.

“There was scholarship behind what they were doing,” says David Lett's son, Jason, who runs Eyrie. David died in 2008. “My father was translating French wine texts into English, and they were doing soil surveys and climate maps. They were working with data. Yes, there was some of the idea that they were coming up here to do their own thing, but they didn't come without an idea of how to do it.”

Today, those original Pinot plantings have grown into a state with 605 wineries, almost 24,000 acres (about 10,000 ha) of vineyards, and almost 60,000 tons of grapes (about 5,500 metric tons) in 2013, which works to about some 3.5m cases. By comparison, Burgundy has twice as many acres of vineyards and its production is almost five times as big. This speaks to the size of most of the state's producers; only a handful make more than 100,000 cases, and many are happy to be in the 20,000- to 30,000- case range.

Pinot Noir is the most widely planted grape, at three-fifths of the harvest tonnage, followed by Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Syrah and Riesling round out the top five, but there are many others, including Tempranillo, Pinot Blanc, Müller-Thurgau, and Gewürztraminer.

Oregon's Pinot Gris is fruit forward and crisp, in contrast to Italian Pinot Grigio and its more mineral approach, and it has become a particular favourite on US wine lists. That Pinot Gris and not Chardonnay is the state's signature white grape, given the comparisons to Burgundy, speaks to the difficulty producers have had with Chardonnay,  and is also why they were so slow to make inroads with sparkling wine. Mostly, they didn't understand the market for it. This is changing, says Adelsheim, because Pinot Gris, no matter how well made, will never be as popular as Chardonnay and can't command the same high-end prices. Consumers will buy a $50.00 Chardonnay, but won't pay more than $30.00 for Pinot Gris. So producers have invested time and money in Chardonnay, using clones more suited to Oregon and planting the vines on better-quality vineyard land.

It's all about Pinot

Oregon's success with Pinot Noir did not come easily or quickly. Some of it, certainly, had to do with Pinot Noir, even more difficult to grow successfully then than it is today, given the advances in viticulture and oenology over the past 50 years. Some of it had to do with the marketplace; as Anderson notes, “it's not like the world was clamoring for Oregon Pinot Noir in 1975.”

And some of it had to do with what the early winemakers and growers were trying to do: produce Pinot Noir in a region where it had never been produced before. Understanding terroir is one thing, but knowing how to adapt your methods to that terroir is something else entirely – and especially when no one had done it before you.

“We were so naive,” says Adelsheim, who started his family-named winery, located in what is today the Willamette Valley's Chehalem Mountains sub-AVA, with wife Ginny in 1971. “It's hard to imagine that in 1971 and 1972 we were planting grapes where there was no known history of wine grapes, and then focusing on Pinot Noir. It was as weird as planting French-American hybrids like Marechal Foch. No one really knew then what Pinot Noir was.”

The turning point came when those first wineries began to understand the difference between the Pinot Noir clones they were using, developed in California for that state's soil and climate, and the clone used in Burgundy. Again, it was about lines of latitude – the Burgundian Dijon clone was better suited to the Oregon terroir than the California clones.

The Dijon clone and its French cousins officially arrived in Oregon in the mid-1980s after the state's growers completed the almost overwhelming paperwork and regulations required by the US government to import foreign rootstock (and Adelsheim gets much of the credit for his work with this). But the Dijon clone may have been planted as early as a decade before that, smuggled to the state by the growers and winemakers who worked harvests in France in the mid- and late-1970s – yet another part of the Oregon legend.

Also important: Blind tastings in 1979 and 1980 in France, the latter organised by Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, and where Oregon Pinot Noirs bested some of the best red Burgundies. Drouhin was so impressed by the wines that he sent his daughter Véronique to Oregon, and that led to the establishment of Domaine Drouhin, the family's Oregon winery, in 1988.

“It's quite remarkable to see what Oregon has done without a master plan,” says Denver's Wayne Belding MS. “It's a testament to the talent and dedication of the people who are there. And that Drouhin was impressed added immediate credibility.”

Style points

Oregon's Pinot Noir speaks to terroir and a specificity of place, says Belding, a wine educatior and former retailer.  “At $50.00 and $60.00 for the top-end wines, they provide value not seen with Pinot Noir anywhere else in the world. There's a common style, delicacy and nuance. They aren't trying to make powerhouse wines.”

In this, says Hunter Hammett CS, who works at San Francisco's Jardinière restaurant, Oregon's Pinot Noir tends to age better, with less ripe fruit and a less viscous feel.

“There is definitely a pioneer mentality, but there is science behind it,” says Hammett. “They have learned how to work with the soil, how to take advantage of the cooler climate, how to maximise the unripe style. My restaurant guests, who are from California, ask for Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, and that should tell you something. They don't want Pinot that tastes like Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Though much has changed in Oregon over the past 50 years, one of the most important hasn't – the sense of community that still exists among wineries, where they understand the competition is not each other, but wine made elsewhere, and particularly from California. It's not unusual to see Oregon winemakers credit their colleagues for their success, and when you interview one winemaker, he or she usually mentions two or three others who have helped them. Talk to them about the history of Oregon wine, and it seems like everyone is giving credit to everyone else. That doesn't happen in too many other places in the world.

“Since they were coming up here to do something before anyone else was doing it, they had to depend on each other,” says Jason Lett. “There was no one else. We feel privileged to be in Oregon, so why wouldn't we want to help each other? We can have good times, exchange ideas, and have frank discussions, and no one thinks twice about it. Who doesn't want to work and play together?”

And make world-class Pinot Noir in the process.  

Jeff Siegel

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International, Issue 2, 2015