Barely 50 years ago, the first Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs were released. A 1980s guide to Oregon wine listed just a couple dozen wineries statewide, many long gone.
Today, Oregon has close to 800 wineries, and Pinot Noir continues to star in that success story. Although the Willamette Valley vineyards remain the standard bearers for quality, Pinot Noir is grown all over the state, from the warm-climate vineyards of Southern Oregon—source for many of the inexpensive, fruitier styles—to the cooler Columbia Gorge.
Decades of research into soils, clones, site selection and careful, non-intrusive winemaking have continually ramped up quality.
It’s rare that any wine region trumpets how costly their wines are. Here, however, it’s a mark of pride. These are not inexpensive wines. Oregon wines overall have an average bottle price of $16.07—compare that to $9.76 for Washington wines and $6.68 for those from California.
But make no mistake: Pinot Noirs from Oregon deliver fantastic value-for-quality when tasted against bottlings from California and Burgundy.
Patricia Green Cellars 2016 Estate Vineyard Bonshaw Block Pinot Noir (Ribbon Ridge); $60, 100 points. This 100% Pommard clone wine from a 1990 planting is immensely deep, dark and textural, with complex aromas that instantly draw one in. Its compact berry, plum jam and baking spice scents come with underlying mineral and earth notes. It hits the palate with a powerfully woven matrix of lush flavors: blueberry, plum, cherry, chocolate, butterscotch and toasted coconut. It’s thick, supple and lingering—an ethereal and extraordinary wine. Editors’ Choice.
Bergström 2016 Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills); $70. 94 points. Full bodied and complex, this mixes raspberries and cherries with flavors of light herbs, bouillon and savory mushroom. Sophisticated and detailed, this wine offers plenty of length and development.
Shea 2015 Block 23 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $66, 95 points. Like the North Block designate, this too is made from 100% Pommard clone. Here, the fruit expression is more lush and full bodied, the blackberry, black cherry, mocha, char and espresso flavors carving deeply into the palate. It’s a dense, powerful wine that’s beautiful now but structured to age. Enjoy it through the next decade. Cellar Selection.
The French Invasion
No matter how loud the home crowd cheers, it’s accolades—and investments—from those outside the region that accelerate both quality and growth. When Robert Drouhin, from Burgundy’s Maison Joseph Drouhin, purchased Dundee Hills land in 1987, it initiated a tectonic shift in how the world viewed the region’s potential for Pinot Noir.
The Drouhins have since been joined by Maison Louis Jadot’s Résonance project, based in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, and Maisons & Domaines Henriot, which purchased a majority interest in the Beaux Frères winery in Newberg. Today, more than a dozen French-born and trained winemakers have direct ties to Oregon projects.
Among them is Bruno Corneaux at Domaine Divio. “I never thought I would end up in America when I worked at our family vineyard in Burgundy,” Corneaux admitted in a recent interview. “When I went to Dijon [for] university, I met a lot of people coming from abroad. It intrigued me about other ways of winemaking around the world. I’ve known Véronique [Drouhin] a long time.
She approached me after we [both] graduated and she said, ‘Why don’t you come and help us for harvest? We have this property in Oregon you might be interested in.’ For me it was a no-brainer that Pinot Noir was the variety to grow in Oregon. The landscape and the community was here.”
The list of French transplants also includes Dominique Lafon at Lingua Franca, Alexandrine Roy at Phelps Creek, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair at Chapter 24 Vineyards, Jean-Nicolas Méo at Nicolas Jay, Laurent Montalieu at Hyland Estates and Soléna Estate, Jacques Tardy at Torii Mor Winery and Florent-Pierre Merlier at Van Duzer Vineyards.
In 2012, Jacques Lardière retired after 42 years as technical director of Maison Louis Jadot. The next year, Jadot purchased Résonance in the Willamette Valley, and Lardière came back.
“I realized I am free for something different now, so I followed the vineyards,” says the energetic Lardière. “We came and visited and saw that this vineyard [Résonance] is exactly what we like. We tasted some wines made from this site; we got a feeling for the place. And we said, ‘Yes. Bingo!’”
All these classically-trained vintners bring an appreciation for proper cultivation of the vines, respect for older vines, centuries of accumulated knowledge, confidence in “letting the wine do its thing in barrel” and an eagerness to embrace New World freedoms to experiment.
Domaine Serene 2015 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $75, 94 points. This reserve is an excellent representation of the 2015 vintage. Firm, supple and loaded with brambly purple fruit, it carries a pleasing touch of fruit sweetness. It rolls gracefully into a tight finish, with layers of herb, earth, blueberry, black cherry and brown spice notes. Editors’ Choice.
Domaine Divio 2016 Pinot Noir (Ribbon Ridge); $48, 94 points. A bright aroma of raspberry jam underscores a core of wet rock. There’s a light saline note of oyster shell on the palate, with well-rounded flavors of rich cherry and chocolate that extend through the finish. Though it may sound like an odd mix, this is flat-out delicious. Editors’ Choice.
Résonance 2015 Découverte Vineyard Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills); $70, 92 points. With production almost quadruple the previous vintage, the overall quality remains just as impressive. The nose offers baking spices and a hint of earthy tobacco, while the palate brings black cherry, with elegant herbal notes of tea and more tobacco. The tannins are proportionate and a bit drying, suggesting that this is one to cellar. Drink now–2028. Cellar Selection.
Pioneers Continue On
With so many competing wines, buyers should look toward proven leaders and cultish newbies.
Many of Oregon’s original wineries disappeared years ago. But a handful of the pioneers are still going strong, run by the second-generation: Adam Campbell (Elk Cove Vineyards), Jason Lett (The Eyrie Vineyards), Luisa Ponzi (Ponzi Vineyards), Ben Casteel (Bethel Heights Vineyard) and Alex Sokol-Blosser (Sokol-Blosser Winery).
Several longtime industry leaders produce wines that consistently impress, whatever hand Mother Nature deals in a given vintage.
Josh Bergström admits that when he and his father started their winery two decades ago, “We knew nothing about wine.” Josh worked some harvests at Rex Hill and Ponzi, and spent time in Beaune, before launching Bergström Wines in 1999. Now with 84 biodynamically farmed acres, and contracts with Shea Vineyard and Temperance Hill Vineyard, the Bergström lineup offers exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Domaine Serene’s owners, Grace and Ken Evenstad, built an early investment in 42 unplanted Dundee Hills acres into Oregon’s most prestigious estate winery. The property now encompasses six vineyards, a new winemaking facility and an eye-popping Clubhouse that hosts black-tie affairs.
In 2015, the Evenstads also purchased Château de la Crée in Burgundy. They produce single-vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays plus more unusual bottlings, such as Coeur Blanc, a white Pinot Noir; and the nonvintage ‘r’ Rosé.
Ken Wright arrived in the Willamette Valley in the mid-1980s, determined to focus on vineyard-designates before such wines were common. He founded Ken Wright Cellars in 1994, and now makes about a dozen single-vineyard Pinots every year.
He was instrumental in both defining the valley’s six sub-AVAs and developing the town of Carlton as a winemaking hub. His wines are potent, expressive and ageworthy, fermented in small batches and designed specifically to let consumers “taste the place” rather than the hand of the winemaker. The 2012 Ken Wright Abbott Claim Vineyard Pinot Noir was Wine Enthusiast’s wine of the year in 2014, yet all Ken Wright wines remain priced in the low $60s.
Patricia Green shockingly passed away November 2017, shortly before her 2016 Patricia Green Bonshaw Block Pinot Noir became Wine Enthusiast’s first-ever 100-point wine entirely sourced and produced in Oregon.
She and her longtime business partner Jim Anderson bought their Ribbon Ridge property in 2000, after working together at Torii Mor. “We like the rough and tumble, hardscrabble minerality, and the earth-toned wines you get here,” Anderson explains. “These are deeply expressive wines that show both the nature of the fruit the plant bears and also the land the plant lives in.”
Dick Shea has the best of both worlds—his own estate winery and a client list for Shea grapes that reads like a who’s who of Oregon Pinot Noir. Many clients have also done winemaking for the Shea brand: Ken Wright in 1999 and 2000, Patricia Green in 2001, Sam Tannahill (now at Rex Hill) from 2002 into 2004, Drew Voit through 2011, and New Zealander Blair Trathen from 2012 on.
With such a parade of unique talents, you might expect the wines to vary, but in truth the greatness of the vineyard consistently shines through. Homer is the reserve, but all Shea’s block and clone selections are exceptional.
Celebrating Cult Producers
Among hundreds of new producers added in just the past decade, here are five standouts. All maintain active wine clubs.
- Alloro Vineyard: This Chehalem Mountains winery owned by David Nemarnik excels with estate-grown Pinots and Chardonnays. Justina and Riservata are top of the line.
- Ayoub Wines: Using tête de cuvée barrels exclusively, Mo Ayoub crafts expressive, ageworthy Pinots, Chardonnays and blended reds from purchased grapes and his estate fruit.
- Kelley Fox Wines: Fox began her career under David Lett at Eyrie Vineyards, and her wines follow his careful, non-interventionist approach. Following a decade at Scott Paul Wines, she’s making her own wines from Maresh, Momtazi, Hyland and Freedom Hill fruit.
- Lavinea: Isabelle Meunier made her reputation crafting wines for Evening Land. She left in 2014 to start Lavinea with business partner Greg Ralston. Her Lavinea wines focus on select individual vineyards: Tualatin Estate, Lazy River, Nysa, Elton and Temperance Hill.
- Lingua Franca: Founded in 2015, Lingua Franca is the project of Sommelier Larry Stone, consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon and CFO/co-founder David Honig. Exceptional Chardonnays and a promising lineup of young Pinots make this a winery to watch closely.
Vineyard, Clone and Block Selections
Knowing which vineyards are in demand by leading winemakers helps to sift through the tsunami of Oregon Pinots. Most wineries produce multiple vineyard designates, and certain names show up regularly. Some, like Shea, Momtazi and Zenith, also bottle wines under their own labels. Other operations, such as Freedom Hill, Lazy River, Lichtenwalter, Nysa and Temperance Hill, focus on selling grapes, and their name on a label reliably indicates quality.
Single-clone Pinots are another avenue. Old-vine plantings were California clones such as Wädenswil and Pommard. There were also so-called “suitcase” clones allegedly smuggled in from France. More recently, Dijon clones have been added to the mix, imported legally from France. All of these clones have their evangelists, but Pommard is the most reliably excellent.
A number of wineries also bottle block selections. These are barrels taken from specific parts of the vineyard that the winemaker has singled out as distinct or special. Sometimes these wines feel incomplete, but they are usually interesting. Think of them as the opportunity to actually drink from different rows, with different elevations and different aspects to the sun.
Value Pinot Noirs
Oregon Pinot Noirs in the $20 range abound, and quality has never been better. Here are some recent high-scoring Editors’ Choice wines.
Apolloni 2015 L Cuvée Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 91 points. This elegant wine appeals from the first sniff to the last lingering flavors. Vibrant in color, it tastes of rose petals, raspberries and cocoa powder. Supple and balanced, it shows impressive structure and length, with hints of citrus. Drink now through the mid-2020’s. Editors’ Choice.
Firesteed 2015 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $17, 91 points. This winery is under new ownership and off to a good start with this widely available, succulent and flat-out delicious Pinot. Spicy cranberry, raspberry and cherry flavors fill out a big midpalate. It boasts tannins that are ripe, supple and proportionate. This lovely wine should be enjoyed over the next couple of years.
Broadley 2016 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 90 points. Broadley follows up its outstanding 2015 with another exceptional value. Supple and true to variety, this was fermented with wild yeasts and aged in neutral oak. The result is an aromatic, well-balanced and affordable wine showing true craftsmanship. Its cherry, Dr. Pepper and sandalwood components meld together gracefully. Editors’ Choice.
Foris 2016 Pinot Noir (Rogue Valley); $20, 90 points. There’s a strong thread of roasted coriander in both scent and flavor, snaking around tart raspberry fruit and buoyant acidity. This is all estate-grown fruit from a winery that almost always over-delivers at this price point. Editors’ Choice.
River’s Edge 2015 Elkton Cuvée Pinot Noir (Elkton Oregon); $20, 90 points. This is a delicious and beautifully-proportioned wine that delivers exceptional value. Concentrated cranberry and blueberry fruit takes the middle ground, and the raw-wood aromas suggest that further bottle age will soften the flavors on the finish. Editors’ Choice.
Carabella 2015 Plowbuster Pinot Noir (Oregon); $20, 90 points. This exceptional vintage of Plowbuster is solidly built and packed with blackberry and cherry fruit. It has a sea salt chocolate component also, which adds both texture and flavor. This is not a keeper, but with its quality to price ratio, it’s certainly a drinker. Editors’ Choice.
Rock Point 2016 Pinot Noir (Oregon); $18, 90 points. This Pinot is forward and fruity, bursting with lush flavors of ripe plum and maraschino cherry. A thin vein of dark chocolate threads through the tannins. The length and structure suggest that this can be aged another half decade or longer. Editors’ Choice.