8 Buyers, 1 Store, 8000 Wines

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On 6:02 PM by The Bloggers @ 67 Wine in , , , , ,    No comments
 In 1965, David and Diana Lett traveled to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home to grass seed, Christmas trees and hops farmers, to plant Pinot Noir and a few vines of Pinot Gris outside the town of Dundee. “You’re going to plant Pinot Noir where?” their friends asked, shaking their heads in disbelief. That first vintage, in 1970, wasn’t a very good one according to David, but he wasn’t willing to give up easily. He and a handful of other early vintners persevered and gradually learned what the valley’s climate and soil demanded and offered.

The hilly, picturesque Willamette Valley, located between Portland and Eugene, has come a long way since the pioneering days of the 1970s. David and Diana, who established Eyrie Vineyards, were followed by Dick Erath, David and Ginny Adelsheim, Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser, Pat and Joe Campbell (who founded Elk Cove Vineyards), and the delightful Myron Redford of Amity Vineyards — well worth the trip down back roads to find. Grape growing and winemaking were relatively new to the Willamette back then, but one important truth emerged: without Pinot Noir, there would be no wine industry in the valley.

During the 1980s, more growers began to establish themselves here and the press started saying good things about their wines. The valley’s real credibility came in 1987 when Robert Drouhin, of the esteemed Burgundy estate Domaine Joseph Drouhin, praised Oregon Pinot Noir after attending a tasting. Later that year, he and his daughter, Véronique, purchased land in the hills of Dundee and built Domaine Drouhin Oregon. (Wine critic Robert Parker and his brother in-law established Beaux Frères around the same time). Suddenly, Oregon was the place to grow Pinot Noir on the West Coast.

Perhaps what attracted the Drouhins to the valley was their Burgundian know-how. Grape growing was not easy in the Willamette. Not every year was a banner year, and the yields were far lower than those from the ‘Baja’ (California to the rest of us). As in Burgundy, a myriad of geologies, exposures and microclimates are scattered throughout the valley, so it was important to know your land and what it offered. Growers soon learned that you could only ripen grapes on the south-facing slopes; plant too far up the hills and your grapes will never ripen. plant too far down and you risked early spring frost. Winemakers in the Willamette definitely live on the edge, but when things go well, their wines shine!

In the Willamette Valley, much as in Burgundy, the winemaker plays the biggest role in determining the style of the wine. There are noticeably different terroirs here, but producer and vinification methods exert the greatest influence over the wine’s style. Wines here can range from light-bodied to dark, from earthy to fruity, from sweet to savory and everything in between. There is no one defining style of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, but then again, we're talking about Pinot Noir — a grape with which it’s hard to mask mistakes.

Some have described Willamette Pinots as the gateway between California and Burgundy; they tend to be less sweet and earthier than those from California.  With a few exceptions, the wines of the Willamette Valley are handcrafted by smaller wineries that devote a lot of attention to detail. The Willamette’s isolation has also  attracted a growing number of organic and biodynamic winemakers who avoid the use of chemicals and harsh treatments and prefer the valley’s laid-back attitude and informal setting.

Although Pinot Noir dominates the region, there are also wonderful whites worth seeking out. Pinot Gris shows far more potential here than its Italian cousin, Pinot Grigio, and has emerged as the most successful white grape. Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc are worth trying, too.

Oregon is home to some of the best wild salmon in the country, and it’s not surprising to see it paired with Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir — both varieties have a natural affinity for grilled wild salmon. They’re also versatile enough to pair with a multitude of foods, so be adventurous and put them to the test. A world of discovery awaits when it comes to the wines of the Willamette Valley.

 And it’s pronounced Willamette, damn it!  

-Bart Hopkins


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