What’s the big deal about Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley?
If you’ve ever visited the Willamette Valley for a wine tastingone thing becomes apparent: Pinot Noir, the king of Oregon grapes, dominates the wine offerings here in the valley. Why? First, a little history and geography lesson. Don’t worry, the modern day Oregon wine industry only goes back to the 1960’s so it won’t be ancient history. It began when three winemakers, David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath, all graduates of UC Davis, decided to take advantage of the similar terroir between Willamette Valley and Burgundy, France where Pinot Noir is also the premier grape.
Terroir? A French term for all the characteristics of a place/region that defines it and the grapes that come from there: climate, latitude, elevation, soil type of a vineyard, etc.
These three farmers/winemakers went on to found the most iconic wineries in OR:
David Lett: Eyrie Winery
Charles Coury: Coury Winery now David Hill Winery
Dick Erath: Erath Winery
They agreed that Pinot Noir was the chosen grape to express the terroir of the Valley and best suited to the cool, wet climate here which sets it apart from the hotter, drier climate of Napa and the Sonoma region in California. The legend goes that David Lett (aka Papa Pinot) brought 3000 cuttings from Burgundy to Oregon in 1965 and started the industry that thrives today as the 4th largest wine producing state in the US. 70% of the vineyard acreage planted in Willamette Valley is Pinot Noir, followed by Pinot Gris (15%) and Chardonnay (7%). 1
The wines of the Willamette Valley came to worldwide recognition in 1979 when Erath’s 1975 South Block Pinot Noir placed in the top 10 of the Gault-Milleu French Wine Olympiades and top Pinot Noir in a blind tasting, upsetting the French wines which had dominated in years past.
Further confirmation came when Maison Joseph Drouhin of Burgundy, France fame, purchased land in Willamette Valley and established an Oregon outpost named Domaine Drouhin in 1988.
Many other wineries followed: Adelsheim, Argyle, Sokol-Blosser, Ponzi, Knudsen, Amity, Tualatin Estates, to name a few. Now, over 700 wineries call Willamette Valley home.2 The state boasts over 1000 wineries when adding in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua and Rogue Valleys, the Columbia Valley straddling the Columbia River’s Oregon and Washington border; and the Snake River Valley on Oregon’s eastern border with Idaho.
What does Pinot Noir taste like?
The Pinot Noir grape is considered to be native to Burgundy, France. It thrives in cooler climates and can ripen in the Willamette Valley unlike the grapes of Bordeaux and California like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, all of which require more sun and drier weather. Pinot Noir’s tasting notes include: low to moderate tannins (the dark bitter compounds prevalent in Bordeaux-style wines that soften with years of aging), high acidity, pale to medium color and aromas of red berries and flowers. Over time aged Pinot Noirs can exhibit an earthy, leather, mushroomy aroma prized by Burgundy lovers.
- Pinot Noir is genetically unstable and prone to mutations. Many wineries in Oregon list the clone of Pinot Noir in their wines: Pommard, Wadenswil, Dijon, etc (often followed by a number). Pinot Noir fans can identify differences in flavor and aroma between the common clones. There are over 1000 recorded Pinot Noir clones.3 In fact, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier are all mutations of Pinot Noir.
- Pinot Noir is one of the flagship grapes of Champagne, along with Chardonnay. The Champagne region in Northern France is limited to grapes that can ripen at the outer ranges of the 30-50 degree latitude band that defines the wine regions around the world. Blanc de Blancs Champagne is made from mostly Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir. It’s no wonder that the Willamette Valley’s reputation for both Chardonnay and Sparkling wines are on the rise!
- Pinot Noir is known as Spätburgunder in Germany, while Grauburgunder is Pinot Gris and Weissburgunder is Pinot Blanc.
It’s hard to avoid Pinot Noir when you visit the Willamette Valley, but please don’t try. If you don’t think you are a fan, you may not have tried the best Pinot Noirs yet. I have learned that many wineries here don’t need to distribute out of state as they can sell out locally thru direct sales from their wineries and local wine shops and restaurants, which means a lot of the best stuff doesn’t leave the state. So inform your wine tour guide (me!) and I can bring you to these special Pinot Noir producers, and also sprinkle in some wineries who bring in grapes from warmer climates (WA and Southern OR) to fulfill your bold, full bodied red cravings.
Next time: Suggest a blog post topic and if I choose it, you will receive a $20 credit on your next wine tour!