The received wisdom is that Pinot Noir is a capricious grape to grow. Despite the difficulties, however, it has settled in quite comfortably in Oregon. There are stunning wines being produced in this corner of the
Pacific Northwest. As Véronique Drouhin puts it: ‘There aren’t many places on earth where Pinot Noir grows well. Oregon is absolutely one of the few where the delicate grape variety expresses itself in such a refined way.’
Given its somewhat temperamental nature, site is everything. The success of recent bottlings from many producers shows that, while this is true, limestone and marl aren’t necessarily part of the equation. These soil types, found in Burgundy, simply don’t exist in the Willamette Valley. Limestone is a type of rock formed over millions of years by marine sediment. The oldest soils in Oregon, such as Willakenzie, were formed in the same way, but they do not have the same calcium-rich nature as their Burgundian relatives because they are derived from accretions of sandstone, not calcium-rich marine organisms. In Oregon, the picture is further complicated by volcanic soil types such as Jory and Nekia, composed of basalt from lava that flowed out of what is today the Cascade mountains. The Dundee Hills AVA and the Eola-Amity Hills AVA have mostly volcanic soils, with marine sediments at lower elevations, while the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Ribbon Ridge AVA and McMinnville AVA have mostly marine sedimentary soils. The Chehalem Mountains AVA has both types.
Oregon is still temperate in terms of climate, but temperatures have been rising, as they have across the world. 2016 was warm and sunny, but 2017 had a cool onset and a cool September that delayed picking. 2018 was warm and dry, but 2019 was back to cool and relatively wet. 2020 was dry and warm, but the evenings were cool. The region appeared set for a fabulous harvest when apocalyptic wildfires struck. The fires’ final effect on wine quality is still being assessed.
One of the most discussed issues is the selection of clonal material for planting the vineyards. Many of the early vineyards were planted with clones isolated by the University of California, Davis, while later vineyards were often planted with a variety from France known collectively as Dijon clones. Different clones emphasise different characteristics in the fruit, such as aroma, sugar production, resistance to botrytis and yield, and each winemaker will have a preference. Bree Boskov MW, who works with the Oregon Wine Board, notes: ‘The current trend is planting at higher elevations and with a more diverse selection of clones, in particular the California heritage selection more than the sugar-loading Dijon clones, which are increasingly less suited as the climate warms.’
Other trends include the adoption of organic and biodynamic methods, although some prefer the sustainable approach typified by the local LIVE certification (Low Input Viticulture and Enology). Some are returning to fermentation in concrete tanks. Most have taken a view on the use of whole bunches in the fermentation, although the practice is not as widespread as it is in Burgundy. Opinions also differ on the level of new oak to use in maturation, with some growers opting for neutral oak or even maturation in clay amphorae. All this exploration is yielding interesting answers – and delicious wine. Here are my picks from a recent tasting.
Evesham Wood, Le Puits Sec, Eola-Amity Hills 2017 96
N/A UK www.eveshamwood.com
An impressive wine from a dry-farmed, certified organic 1.8ha vineyard, first planted in 1986. Superbly elegant violet-tinged cherry fruit with a hint of spice, developing gracefully to take on a smoky subtlety and supple depth, showing hints of freshly turned earth. The texture is seductively silky and delicate, yet there is rewarding density and length. Drink 2021-2030 Alcohol 13%
Archery Summit, Arcus Vineyard, Dundee Hills 2018 93
N/A UK www.archerysummit.com
The Arcus vineyard is an amphitheater of sustainably farmed vines first planted in 1973. Here, 30% of the fruit is added as whole clusters. After 10 months in French casks (30% new), the wine is racked into neutral barrels for six months. It’s flinty and mineral-driven, with pure, ripe cherry fruit that’s less marked by oak than many peers. The texture is silky but not lacking substance. Supremely elegant finish. Marvellous. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 14.1%
Beaux Frères, Beaux Frères Vineyard, Ribbon Ridge 2017 95
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