Exploring Oregon wine country, Part 1
“Pinot Noir is the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that it is like falling in love.” Joel Fleischman
There is a new kid on the block in the ancient world of viticulture; Oregon. It all started about 40 years ago when a group of UC Davis students had the bright idea that the Willamette valley had the perfect conditions for the temperamental pinot noir grape. Two of them, David Lett and Dick Erath, decided to take this idea seriously and moved north to seek their fame and fortune. And they found it.
It turns out that the Willamette Valley is a great place to grow the finicky pinot noir grape. After all, the grapes are a bit like Oregonians, they wilt at any temperature higher than 85 degrees. The valley is also located on the 45° North latitude, the same as Burgundy France that is famous for its pinot noir wines. But the world of wine viewed Oregon pinot noir as a rebel wine produced by reckless hippies. “Heavy on the oak and light in finesse.” One Frenchman said.
That all changed when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards entered his pinot noir into the French “wine Olympics” in 1979. It won third place in a blind taste test against France’s top labels. That whipped their heads around and Oregon became recognized as a serious winemaking region.
As of 2009, Oregon boasted 453 wineries with most of them specializing in pinot noir. These wineries contributed over 93 million dollars to the Oregon economy in 2004 and that figure does not include direct winery and tasting room sales. There were 1.49 million visits to Oregon wineries last year with 49% of them Oregonians and 51% from elsewhere. Plus McMinnville is now the celebrated host of the “International Pinot Noir Celebration.”
Wow. All that in my back yard? It was time to go explore Oregon wine country for the good of all, right? It was a head spinning good time, especially after about 6 tasting rooms! I had no idea that pinot noir wines have such a board range in taste. The tremendous difference in nose, flavors, textures and body is like no other wine I have ever experienced.
Pinot Noir has a reputation of being very sensitive to fermentation methods, yeast strains and is highly reflective of its terrior. (Terrior is the flavor that the grapes pick up from the earth they are grown in.) Consequently, pinot noir has gathered quite a cult following of oenophiles, aka wine geeks.
Another wonderful contribution that Oregon vintners make to this highly erratic wine is that most of the wineries are small boutique and family run wineries that pay close attention to wine quality and are interested in experimenting. Unlike California and Washington, Oregon currently produces no bulk wine. This makes for an exceptional wide range of Oregon pinot noirs that you have got to try for yourself!
Stay tuned for my next post on tips to keep from getting too tipsy while tasting and the must visit wineries. Till then, salute!