Oregon Pinot production up

Published11/19/2008 12:02 AM

When we were young, we used to take Amtrak trains on a circuit all the way around the U.S. and rarely leave the bed of our sleeper car for the entire trip. Our meals were even delivered there.

One leg of our trip ended in Portland, Ore., and that was always our favorite stop because of the people, the restaurants and the wine. Even 25 years ago, when we dropped into a wine store there, the merchants would talk earnestly about the state's own wines and assure us that, someday, Oregon would be a famous wine-producing region. Considering that in 1980 there were just 34 bonded wineries and 1,100 vineyard acres, it was hard to imagine, but their passion was charming.


Today, Oregon has about 400 wineries, 17,000 acres of vineyards and a worldwide reputation for its wine, especially its Pinot Noir. Even just in the decade we have been writing this column - and routinely tasting Oregon Pinot - we've been fascinated with the growth, not just in size but in quality. For many years, Oregon's Pinots were the only wine about which we disagreed. Dottie loved their upfront fruitiness, but John found them too fruity and thought they were, in many cases, superficial, without the earthiness and soulful sense of place that makes great Pinot Noir - in Burgundy, for instance - such a special wine.

As the years have gone on, we have found our views becoming less divided. Three years ago, in our last broad blind tasting of Oregon Pinot, John found that the wines had indeed become more complex and interesting, while Dottie continued to enjoy their pure fruit and sense of place. At that time, though, we cautioned that many good Oregon Pinots were very hard to find and that most were pricey. Since then, there have been a few good developments: Oregon Pinots have become more widely available and more are priced at $20 or less, at least partly as a result of a particularly abundant crop in 2006. In fact, Oregon crushed more than twice as much Pinot Noir in 2007 as in 2004. We were eager to know: How is quality holding up?

We conducted a large blind tasting to find out. We bought more than 50 off store shelves. We set a limit of $60 - not $50 because there were so many between $50 and $60. We focused on the 2006 vintage because those are the most widely available, but we picked up some 2005 wines as well. While many of these wines were well-known old friends, from Adelsheim and Argyle to WillaKenzie, our sample also included some small-production wines, because the average Oregon winery produces fewer than 5,500 total cases. We also included names that are highly regarded, such as Domaine Drouhin and Beaux Freres, but have never been among our personal favorites.

We tasted the wine in blind flights over several nights. In honor of the tasting, we cooked a special meal each night that seemed right for the wine: duck one night, for instance, stuffed roasted chicken another, and lamb another. We tasted the wines before dinner and then retasted the best with the food.

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We are delighted to report that Oregon Pinot continues its upward trajectory. The difference in the wines over the years is remarkable. We found again and again in this tasting that the wines have developed a confidence and depth that beautifully complement their lovely fruit. The wines have not only a purity of fruit but a purity of vision that is very attractive. Like Burgundy itself, these are wines that speak to the more romantic parts of our being.

We've been big supporters of California Pinot Noir for many years. Long before "Sideways," we argued that it was the most consistent American red wine on shelves, both above and below $20. Too many of the Pinots seemed ponderous, possibly over-oaked and maybe even a little sweet - all in all, not the elegant and haunting Pinots we want and expect.

Oregon's offerings have so far avoided this trap. In our tasting, the fruit was allowed, again and again, to speak for itself. Sure, we used descriptive words like raspberries, tobacco, earth, chocolate and even funk (which is a good thing, in limited amounts, in Pinot). But the more important words we used over and over were integrity, honest, true. The winemakers allowed the vineyards themselves, the fruit itself, the terroir itself, to star. This is what makes great Pinot what it is - an expression of place. When we tasted these wines, we imagined the vintners standing among the vines crushing a grape between their fingers, smiling broadly and deciding that the best thing they could do is not screw it up. This made the wines, on the whole, both tasty and relaxed, as though no one was trying too hard (though we know, of course, what really goes into this).

We're delighted that two of our favorites in this tasting cost about $20, though our best of tasting, Domaine Serene, cost more than $50. The winery says it made 7,500 cases of the 2005 that were distributed nationwide. The 2006 will be released next year.

We'd urge you, as always, not to obsess about individual labels, because the wines from 2006, especially, are consistently winning. In fact, in many cases we'd offer these our highest compliment for Pinot: They're sexy.

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