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Steven Spurrier: A letter from Oregon

Steven Spurrier details his summer trip to Oregon and evaluates the region's current wine scene particularly the Pinots in comparison with those from Burgundy...

This summer I was guest speaker at the 33rd International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in Oregon, my theme being ‘Chalonnaise, the third Côte’. Having been viewed over the years by the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune as a sort of distant cousin, extensive replanting with selected clones, better attention in the cellar and total attention to quality has brought the Côte Chalonnaise firmly back into the Burgundy family.

Find out more about the Oregon wine region

Apart from the Chalonnaise masterclass and two smaller events, my time was spent focusing on Oregon’s own wines, especially the Pinots. The success of the region is clear from the increase in plantings – in 1987, 59 estates/wineries made wine from 1,804ha; 30 years later this had mushroomed to 12,548ha planted and 769 estates/wineries.

The grape varieties planted in 2017 were: Pinot Noir 59%, Pinot Gris 15%, Chardonnay 6%, Syrah 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon 3%, Riesling 2%, Merlot 2% and 10% of others. Vineyard expansion has been fast, but is expected to slow, especially for Chardonnay.

Oregon has not been spared from global warming. Average harvest dates from the recent period have been mid-September, three weeks earlier than the average over the previous 25 years. From the 1960s, the Willamette Valley has warmed from a Winkler Region I cool-climate region to a warmer Region II today, the result so far being more predictable and riper vintages for the Pinot family, Chardonnay and Riesling.

‘These Oregon wines are very site-specific – they remind me of Burgundy’’

However, the warmer conditions do bring challenges with heat extremes – 2017 saw 118 days above 27°C, including 32 above 32°C. If the trend continues it will require changes of style, clones, varieties and all measure of techniques and process in the vineyards and wineries, as made clear by Harry Peterson-Nedry, early partner in the classic Chehalem estate in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Willamette Valley.

As it was, the vintage of Pinot Noir shown in the afternoons at the IPNC walk-around  tastings was the superb 2016, the earliest ever in Oregon. 2017 was later, but the hottest ever, yet the few samples I tasted remained resolutely Oregonian. 2015 was almost a twin of 2016 with big heat, big crop and big expectations from the start due to rich fruit and lowish acidity, the locals comparing it favourably to 2014, which although very hot had the cleanest fruit the region had seen for a decade.

These young (in Burgundian terms) vintages really impressed me. Being totally modern both in concept and fruit, they are miles away from the 1970s Eyrie Vineyards wines that put Oregon on the Pinot Noir map – but the fruit is from mostly organically farmed vineyards, giving each wine its own character. These wines are very site-specific, reminding me of Burgundy, which is probably why Burgundians are taking such an interest.

And it is not just the Pinots. At the IPNC lunches and dinners, a bevy of sommeliers served an amazing array of wines. I loved the Pinot Blancs, admired the Pinot Gris (particularly from King Estate) and was fascinated by the Rieslings, the Alexana Winery 2018 being Alsatian, the bone-dry Anam Cara Cellars 2015 pure Mosel.

From the Pinots, I had so many scores over 92 that it is hard to choose just five from the splendid 2016s, but here goes: Cristom, Jessie Vineyard; Elk Cove, Mount Richmond; Evesham Wood, Le Puits Sec; Nicolas-Jay, Willamette Valley; R Stuart & Co, Autograph.

On the second day, at the invitation of Thibault Gagey, I visited Résonance, the estate taken in hand from a meticulous grower by Louis Jadot in 2013, winemaking overseen in a new winery by Jacques Lardière. Tank samples of 2018 (mostly Pommard clone) were elegant, 2017 expressively structured, 2016 rich and spicy, just beaten by the better balanced (13.5% alcohol) 2015, to end on an open and attractive 2014. Domaine Drouhin has a serious rival.

What I’ve been drinking this month:

Adelsheim, Quarter Mile Lane Vineyard 2017

Dinner the first evening in Oregon was hosted by David Adelsheim, former president of the IPNC. Of the two whites, Love & Squalor’s Willamette Valley Riesling 2015 was rich and just dry, while Adelsheim’s Ribbon Springs Chardonnay 2016 was citrussy and elegant. Two Pinots followed, the black cherries of Adelsheim’s Quarter Mile Lane 2017 taking the edge over the floral, precise Mercurey 1er Cru En Sazenay 2017 from Antonin Rodet.

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