Oregon Pinot noir
If you love Oregon Pinot noir, you've arrived. Here you'll find the largest selection of Oregon's finest, from the Willamette Valley's oldest, best known wineries and from new, must-know rising stars. Rare and exclusive, limited special bottlings, and small lot reserves are a specialty. But you'll find bargains here as well.
More About -Oregon Pinot noir
How to Choose an Oregon Pinot noir
Vintage, vineyard, winemaker - in order, those are the most important things to look at when you are standing in front of a daunting shelf of wine, trying to make a decision.
The Vintage, and the Weather that Creates It.
More than any other grape, Pinot noir is affected by the weather conditions surrounding each year's crop. And the weather is never a sure thing. Most of Oregon's Pinots are produced in the cool climate region of the Willamette Valley where Pinot noir achieves its maximum ripeness just as the growing season ends. This results in the best varietal flavors, but it also poses risks for winemakers.
If the weather gets wet as early as mid-September, it can cause lots of headaches and potential hearbreak as winemakers choose the do or die time to pick the grapes. If rains come early, the grape crop might become waterlogged or damaged; if the weather turns cool too early, ripening can be slowed and disease risks are higher; if hot weather persists, the grape quality can decrease as the grapes get too sweet and lose their bright, crisp, fresh flavors.
In the more reliably warmer regions of California and Washington, weather risks are considerably less, but the pay in other ways. Grapes grown in extremely hot weather can have jammy, less complex, and less interesting varietal flavors because they over ripen in their region's high heat.
Oregon's own warm climate regions (Southern Oregon, Walla Walla, and the Columbia Gorge areas) still have weather risks, but warmer climate grapes (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah) can thrive there.
So, when buying Oregon Pinot noir — especially the cool climate varieties — it is important that you pay attention to vintage characteristics so that you can more knowledgeably buy wines that will likely meet your taste. (See the table at right.)
After the vintage, the most important factor to consider in purchasing Oregon Pinot noir is the location of the vineyard, and the quality of the vineyard itself.
Partly because of Oregon's cool climate, the importance of "place" in the wines has been emphasized by winemakers. In fact, the bottling of wine from a single vineyard has become extremely popular among the state's winemakers, in part because some of these vineyards seem to have a distinctive "taste signature" (which is sometimes, though a bit inaccurately, called "terroir").
Many of these vineyards are independent, selling grapes to a variety of winemakers. Names such as Shea, Freedom Hill, Croft, Temperance Hill, Seven Springs, and many, many others have come to be a kind of seal of approval that the wine is likely to be fine when the grapes come from here.
below harvesting grapes at the famous Shea Vineyard
But many other vineyards that have developed broad reputations for quality are estate vineyards owned by the wineries themselves. There are many people who continually buy the bottlings of these estate vineyards because they have been proven to be distinctive, vintage after vintage.
Plus, different geological regions within the state's appellations, seem to produce broadly different wine flavors. For instance, the volcanic soils of the Willamette Valley's "Red Hills" region tend to produce elegant and high-toned red-fruited wines, while the sedimentary soils of the Willamette valley's "Yamhill-Carlton District" seem to be softer, earthier, and have more red and black fruit notes. The "gold coast" of the Dundee Hills along Worden Hill Road is known for its bright red, iron laden Jory soils and a unique flavor profile that brings top prices.
While it isn't necessary to have intimate knowledge of all these details, gaining a broad understanding of the vineyard make-up of Oregon can help you find wines that appeal more strongly to your own palate.
The third part of our triumverate of wine buying factors is the producer.
Whether a one guy and a tank operation or a large winery making hundreds of thousands of gallons, some winemakers will make Pinot noir that better suits your taste. Trying them is a lot of the fun, but some basic concepts can make it more likely that the bottle you select is a winner.
below, sorting grapes at Ken Wright Cellars
No one really knows exactly how many wineries there are in Oregon(!) Depending upon whose statistic you use, you can easily come up with a number somewhere between 400 and 500. And, frankly, the level of wine quality varies tremendously.
On the one hand, there are many famous names that have proven themselves reliably capable of producing excellent Pinot noir. Over the years these venerable producers have attracted a loyal following among consumers for their wines. These wineries tend to have a high profile, are available all across the country, and often sell-out quickly.
Many Oregon wine buyers happily limit themselves to procuring wines from these producers—and more power to them, the wines can be fantastic!
But there is another kind of producer that savvy wine buyers are increasingly seeking out: the small, limited production, craft winemaker whose wines can't be so readily found in national markets, but can be of fantastic quality. Often these wine labels have been around for many years, but because of their size (and limited marketing budgets) they haven't yet built sell-out-in-a-second status.
These boutique winemakers require the dedicated wine lover to dig a little deeper to find—by searching the Web, reading locally-produced wine publications, and talking to other consumers—but the rewards of discovery and wine quality can be wonderful.
There is a final category of Oregon Pinot noir for adventurous consumers to consider: the brand new names whose wines are fresh to consumers' palates. Some of these labels have only two or three vintages under their belt, others are brand new and offering their initial Pinots to the public. Some of these labels have big financing behind them and are able to hire "name" winemakers as consultants, others are shoestring operations, with passionate winemakers barely able to pay for the cost of their own label art.
While some consumers will shy away from these vernal wineries as unproven risks for their hard-earned dollars, others will dive right in, eagerly sampling these new wares in search of a diamond in the rough.
But then, that is what's so fun and exciting about Oregon Pinot noirs -- their diversity, quality, and opportunity for greatness!
By Jean Yates
below, labels from some of our favorite Oregon wines
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