Oregon - Where Pinot is king
Oregon is a young wine region. Just over 50 years ago, David Lett planted the first Pinot Noir cuttings in Willamette Valley. No one expected the wines to work, however, he was determined, and over 50 years later, the region boasts 700 wineries which call Oregon home. Yet, travelling around Oregon you still feel the crowds are still to arrive. There are no huge chateaux or tasting rooms, Domaine Serene is an exception, but expect to drive up and knock on the door of an old pig farm or taste on an old picnic table. Tasting rooms are starting to pop up, however, this is nothing like their Californian cousins down south. This is rural and rustic, and the wines show this same distinct character. And I love it!
Oregon is predominantly first-generation, history is short, and the best terroir, soil and location are still be discovered. This though, is Pinot Country, 4-5 times Pinot Noir grows here than any other variety, yet don't let that put you off trying other varieties. I have tried some excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
Oregon is unique for a few reasons. It is the same latitude as the Cote de Beaune in Bourgogne, the climate is continental with hot days in the summer months along with coolish nights due to the proximity to the sea. I found the most unique attribute was the soil. In Willamette Valley, there are generally two different characteristics of soils, Volcanic and Marine sediment. Vines grown on Volcanic soil tends to produce wines which are fruit-driven, crisp, clean along with crushed stones. Marine sediment produces wines which are more floral and savoury driven with notes of dried spices.
When deciding which wineries to visit, I like variety. Domaine Serene, Patricia Green, Beaux Freres and Evening Lands got me that variety. A full report will be published in the coming weeks, however, I wanted to share my initial thoughts. Has anyone ever been in a tasting group or performing a blind tasting and got an Oregon Pinot Noir and nailed it? I doubt it. I have tried so many different styles of Oregon Pinot Noirs, from Burgundy rustic styles to fruit driven to oaky styles. Oregon has it all.
Domaine Serene was the largest winery I visited. It was found by Grace and Ken Evenstad in 1989 and was named after their daughter Serene. They had international success by winning two top 10 'Wine Spectator Awards' as well as several recognitions at the Decanter World Wine Awards. They recently purchased a vineyard in Burgundy and now produce several bottlings under their French label Château de la Crée. The majority of their wines are estate grown, and they sustainably grow their grapes. They also operate a very popular club membership with over 2000 members, which have access to a variety of single vineyard designated wines. I was quite excited about the visit and tasting. I am always objective when I write about wine, and I found their wines to have quite a lot of oak and the alcohol quite high. Their wines are driven by the integration of both the fruit and the barrel ageing. I have a personal preference towards showcasing the terroir from where the vines are grown, and I feel this is lost with the high oak on these wines. Yet, I understand how some consumers like these bigger and bolder Pinot Noirs.
The highlights included Domaine Serene 'R' (93 points), a very Provence style of rose. Quite floral with fresh strawberries, raspberries, fresh lavender and a good backbone of acidity. As well as, the Domaine Serene Chardonnay Evenstad Reserve 2017 (92 points), with a nose full of butter popcorn, caramel and Asian pear. This seriously textured wine was fully layered with a sweet and elegant finish. Along with the Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve 2016 (92 points), The palate had soft elegant tannins yet was rich along with a full palate, the fruit felt creamy with multilayers of vanilla, spice and a little cocoa. Finally a word on the Domaine Serene Grand Chaval, a blend of Syrah and Pinot Noir, textually this does not work in my eyes. I understand certain consumers enjoy this, however, a grape as light as Pinot Noir should not be blended with Syrah. I was not a huge fan of this blend.
Patricia Green Cellars
Patricia Green Cellars started in 2000 when friends Patty Green and Jim Anderson purchased a 52-acre estate in Willamette Valley. Their philosophy of winemaking is as they state 'Do what needs to be done'. When great fruit is produced, from great terroir, very little is needed to be done in the winery to make great wine. Patricia Green wines are produced by showcasing individual clones, sites, soils and terroirs. In my eyes this is what needs to be done along with careful oak ageing which brings is a true expression of a specific vineyard. Understanding the relationship between soil type and clones is very important. For those not familiar with Pinot Noir clones, I recommend this fantastic article to bring you up to speed. Patricia Green owns a larger number of vineyards but also purchases fruit from certain growers. However these growers need to keep the quality high, or they will be dropped. I came away highly impressed by the high quality of different expressions of Pinot Noir available in Willamette Valley, and Patricia Green was able to showcase many expression of this wonderful grape variety. Attention should also be made on their Chardonnays which even though are less popular than their Pinots, are of the same high standard. They remind me hugely of Chablis and Cote de Beaune.
My highlight of the Chardonnay range was the Durant Vineyard 2017 (92 points), which was full of well-textured lemon, crushed rocks and oyster shells. This was very Chablis style with piercing acidity and a strong backbone to match. As for the Pinots the Patricia Green Cellars Mysterious 2016 (95 points), was beautiful with near velvety like textures along with creamy and rich fruit along with good structure, the hero here is the fruit and the terroir. Along with the Patricia Green Cellars Coury Clone Hyland Vineyard (95 points), quite burgundy in style yet had that Volcanic soil which gave the palate that fruit-driven yet crushed rock texture, this really showcased the Coury clone perfectly. Finally, the Patricia Green Cellars Weber Vineyard 2017, which had both a serious yet joyful side, this had a pleasant uplift of fruit and spice cake which gave the wine a structured and elegant finish. Patricia Green is very much an under the radar winery producing world-class Pinot Noirs,, for those who are not in the know you are missing out!
Beaux Frères was started by Michael Etzel and his brother-in-Law Robert Parker, Jr in 1986, when Michael saw a pig farm on Ribbon Ridge and purchased it. The first vines were planted in 1991. In 2017 Henriot partnered with Beaux Frères to make it a second-generation winery. Beaux Frères winery uses a biodynamic approach to winemaking along with producing their own compost and do not use any fertilizers. They produce mostly Pinot Noir with a little Chardonnay.
Their three estate vineyards are 'The Beaux Freres Vineyard', 'Upper Terrace' and 'Sequitur'. They are also researching an old-world technique called 'Palissage'. This technique turns back the vines which would normally be hedged underneath the canopy. This is another way to control the canopy and to reduce the lateral shoot growth which allows for fewer shoots and leaves around the clusters. This technique leads to more work in the vineyard, yet initial studies show better quality fruit is produced.
Highlights included Beaux Frères Star Mooring Chehalem Mountains 2017 (94 points), full-on fruit with dark cherries, strawberries along with a little spice, crushed stones and a lean, straight finish. The Beaux Frères 'Beaux Frères Vineyard' 2017 (94 points), layers of fresh ripe fruit, fresh herbs a little spice and pepper, but it was the layers of velvety tannins that got me. Finally, the highlight of the tasting was the Beaux Frères Palissage 2017 (96 points), I was impressed to see such a difference in the concentricity along with certain floral and deep red fruits characteristics and a long elegant finish. I really enjoyed the Beaux Frèress range of wines, they had good purity, concentration and elegant length, and all of this with a sustainable and organic approach. Amazing
Evening Land was one of the projects of Rajat Parr, one of my idols and probably one of the best blind tasters in the world. All wines come from the Seven Springs vineyard, located Eloa-Amity hills. The Eloa-Amity hills tend to be slightly higher in altitude than other sub-appellations in Willamette Valley, for this reason, the wines tend to have higher acidity and lower in alcohol. One of the issues I encountered across Oregon was the rising temperatures, however, for now, this is not an issue for Evening Land. Since 2007, Evening Land is also certified organic.
Evening Land was one of the projects of Rajat Parr, one of my idols and probably one of the best blind tasters in the world. All wines come from the Seven Springs vineyard, located Eloa-Amity hills. The Eloa-Amity hills tend to be slightly higher in altitude than other sub-appellations in Willamette Valley, for this reason, the wines tend to have higher acidity and lower in alcohol. One of the issues I encountered across Oregon was the rising temperatures, however, for now, this is not an issue for Evening Land. Since 2007, Evening Land is also certified organic. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay are produced. I am consistently impressed by the number of wineries which are sustainable and/or organic in Oregon compared to other regions I have visited in the world. Evening Land wines stood out with their minerality, chalkiness and subtle fruit characteristics.
This was my first time in Oregon, and I have to say I was impressed by the quality and more than that the sustainability and care they take about producing some of the best Pinot Noir in the world. Oregon is a very very New World country, yet the quality which is being produced makes me think they have been producing wine for over 100 years. Oregon has taken inspiration from Burgundy, and are making different styles of Pinot Noir. I only have one concern: Global Warming. Everyone is worried about it in Oregon, they can't control it and it will mean they have to work harder in the vineyard by controlling the canopy etc. to control the ripening of the grapes. They have challenges in the coming years, but as long as they stick to their roots and don't try crazy blends or 100's of different varieties, I know they will be fine. Oregon is going through a 'wine rush' at the moment, as more and more consumers are finding out what Oregon has to offer. For now, it is still under the radar, but I expect this to change in the coming years. I am looking forward to what the future will hold for Oregon and their wine scene.