The last four Oregon vintages have produced some fabulous wines, especially Pinot, writes MICHAEL SCHACHNER.
It’s late November and for obvious reasons it has been a very difficult autumn throughout the United States. But Harry Peterson-Nedry, co-owner and founder of Chehalem, a top wine producer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, is smiling. He’s smiling along with his winemaking neighbours because 2001 marked the fourth consecutive year that Oregon vintages – which sports as fickle a wine growing climate as one will find this side of Burgundy – posted a superb vintage for its lifeblood grape, Pinot Noir.Across the Willamette Valley, the state’s prime grape-growing region that runs from just outside Portland south to the city of Eugene, vintners are celebrating the fact that Mother Nature blessed them not only during the most recent growing season, but in every year since 1998. A four-year run of text book harvests in what Peterson-Nedry describes as a ‘bona fide cool climate’ is unprecedented, and the wines that are on the market today or will be coming onto the market over the next couple of years, particularly the Pinot Noirs, are as good as any the state has made in its 30-year modern winemaking history.For Oregon, this string of great vintages is just what the doctor ordered, especially after winemakers struggled in 1995–97 to produce wines that justified their premium prices. Which brings us to a key point: newcomers to Oregon vintages should know that Oregon’s best Pinot Noirs, and for that matter its Chardonnays, are not cheap. Most of the best wines start at about $35 (£24) and go skyward from there. Per-bottle prices of $50 (£34), $60 (£41), even $90 (£62) are not unheard of when it comes to star-quality Pinot Noir. Consequently, rarely will you hear the words ‘value’ and ‘Oregon Pinot’ mentioned in the same sentence.
Having said that, higher-end consumers who love what Broadley Vineyards winemaker Craig Broadley refers to as ‘clean, fruit-driven Pinot Noir’ should not dismiss the offerings of Oregon vintages as not being worth the money. All one has to do is compare them with similarly priced wines from Burgundy to see that quite often they are on a par with what that legendary region has to offer. Sometimes they are even better.’When people get beyond the prices, they should love our wines,’ says James ‘Jay’ McDonald, owner of Pinot Only, a retailer and consultant in the small town of Carlton. ‘Pinot is the hardest and most expensive grape to deal with. It’s moody and must be harvested by hand. The bottom line is that it costs a lot to make. Look at the prices of good Burgundy.’
Following McDonald’s suggestion, it is probably worthwhile to turn to Burgundy to best understand Oregon vintages. The two regions, while not identical, are exceedingly similar. Both sit on the 45th parallel, an imaginary line that splits the northern hemisphere halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Draw a horizontal line from the Côte d’Or and it will run right through Oregon’s finest vineyards. As well as matching latitudes, temperature patterns are similar in the two regions. Spring is chilly, making for unpredictable bud bursts. The summers are warm, but not boiling hot. And thermometer readings don’t really drop until the end of September. Lastly, most of the best wines from both regions come from single vineyards, meaning they are not blended from various sites.Precipitation, however, is where things differ. Despite its reputation for not having much sunshine, Oregon’s summers are extremely dry; the state actually receives far less rain and humidity during the summer months than does Burgundy. As a result, rot and mildew are not problematic in Oregon until harvest time in October. But come October, things can get dicey. Oregon vintners are fond of saying that ‘never has a vintage been made or lost in July or August. It’s when fall begins to set in that vintages are sculpted.’ By that they mean that Indian summers that stretch into October can yield beautiful crops (such as 1998–2001), while rain can ruin things either by bloating the grapes or forcing early picking, which results in underripe, bitter wines. ‘Great blooms, good summers and spectacular Septembers and Octobers in recent years have given us great fruit to work with,’ says Ron Kaplan, owner of Panther Creek since 1994 and a former attorney in the Midwest.
Kaplan’s respected winery, which is housed in an old power station in the town of McMinnville, produces about 8,500 cases per year of Pinot Noir. Most of Panther Creek’s wines are single-vineyard bottlings, something Kaplan feels strongly is the best way for wineries to express Oregon’s terroir. ‘What’s most interesting about the single-vineyard concept is that we vinify everything the same way, yet every wine tastes different. I think we’re proving the notion that wines from the same grape but from different vineyards don’t taste the same.’ This, Kaplan points out, is yet another similarity between Oregon and Burgundy. Among the top vineyards in the Willamette Valley that provide fruit for vineyard-designated wines are Arcus (owned by Archery Summit), Shea, White Rose and Temperance Hill. Other top wineries like Beaux Frères (a partnership between Michael Etzel and his wine- writing brother-in-law, Robert Parker), Chehalem, Cristom and Domaine Serene rely primarily on estate vineyards.v
One of the most stunning single-vineyard wines to have emerged in recent years comes not from a new vineyard but from one that has been around for two decades but was never used for a vineyard-specific wine. Ponzi Vineyards, one of the state’s old-guard wineries from the early 1970s, began to bottle its Abetina Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1998, and its 1999, made by Luisa Ponzi – daughter of Oregon winemaking pioneer Dick Ponzi, and wife to the talented winemaker Eric Hamacher, the proprietor of Hamacher Wines – is a model for others to look up to.The Abetina wine, which comes from a tiny 0.8 hectare plot, is a so-called ‘field blend’ of 20 different clones of Pinot Noir (Abetina was originally a test vineyard for Oregon State University). Yields are a mere 31.5hl/ha, and the wine’s richness is immediately evident, reflecting the charmed treatment it gets in the winery: hand-sorting of grapes, fermentation in small open-top vessels, and a light pressing before treatment in 50% new French oak, where it sits for 17 months.Along with the 1999 Beaux Frères and Cristom’s 1999 Louise Vineyard bottling, Abetina is a calling card for the potential of Oregon Pinot Noir. And it’s only a matter of time until the equally lauded 2000 and 2001 wines are released.
Michael Schachner is a New York-based wine, food and travel writer who grew up in the Willamette Valley. From 1997–2000 he was an editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Written by Michael Schachner