Oregon’s Pinot Noir frontier

Oregon Wine

If you had to name the most famous things to come out of Oregon – that heavily wooded, almost-Canadian, north-west state of the union – Pinot Noir probably wouldn’t come immediately to mind.

That eccentrically artistic frontier state that produced River Pheonix, Simpsons creator Matt Groenig and Courtney Love, where hazelnuts and salmon are state symbols and Hell’s Canyon plunges deeper than the Grand Canyon, also produces around 11,000 tonnes of Pinot a year – about a third of Australia’s production in 2014.

Surely it is too chilly to grow grapes? Well, while some of us may have a view of Oregon as a place of dense redwood forests and tough fur trappers with icicles hanging from their noses, a place where men are men and women meekly spin wool and broil bison steaks on fires made of logs as big as cars, this is not so – Oregon is nowhere near as cold as you think.

Even though it is on the same latitude as Quebec and New England, its location on the Pacific west coast makes parts of Oregon positively temperate with dense, dripping rainforests and humidity you can see.

But it’s the Mediterranean-like valleys between the sea and the Cascade Mountains that have become home to the US’s third largest wine region, with 400 wineries spread over 20,000 acres of vineyard.

For Pinot Noir pilgrims this is one of those boxes which just cries out to be ticked.

While acres of vineyard scatter across the million-year-old volcanically fertile landscape of this great state, it is the Willamette Valley that is touted by wine writers and bloggers as the Burgundy of Oregon. Being so definitive is of course bound to cause ire amongst parochial tweeters and bloggers from the Umpqua Valley, Rogue Valley, Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla Valley and Snake River Valley, which all make equally good Oregon Pinot.

Frankly though, if you were to set out on a Pinot expedition to Oregon (maybe flying directly into Portland or taking the picturesque AmTrak overnight sleeper from San Francisco), you’d be excused for starting out at the Willamette Valley.

It runs from the Columbia River near the Washington border and oozes south like a giant ink stain through Portland to Salem and Eugene, where most of the Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay and Pinot Gris) action happens for good reason. As a result of modest snowfalls, with cool, wet winters and dry summers – which vines love – this little part of the world produces of some of the best Pinot in the US.

Once snugly inside your rented Mustang, aim for Newberg or Dundee on Oregon Route 99W, which runs through the centre of the Willamette Valley.

These towns offer what every wine tourist expects: a range of accommodation including a luxury “high thread count” hotel, the Allison Inn and Spa (the South Korean restaurant chef Sunny Jin trained at Tetsuya’s in Sydney), other fine dining restaurants (and burger and rib joints), loss making galleries run by independently-wealthy retired lawyers and a range of other retail and gastronomic diversions.

Our mates at Wine Folly say if they had to pick two descriptors for the taste of Oregon Pinot it would be cranberries and earth – an aromatic mixture which one imagines even Ocean Spray would find hard to sell. Wandering through some tasting notes from leading Oregon wineries you might also be relieved to find more common descriptors such as raspberry, cherry, plums, spice and cocoa as well as the oak influences of vanilla and smoke.

“The rustic quality of Oregon Pinot Noir doesn’t always appeal to California wine enthusiasts who enjoy fruit-forward wines,” says Wine Folly’s Madeline Puckette. “So be warned, you’re entering a different world. Oregon red wines are nuanced, subtle, with high acidity that don’t always explode with lusty fruit.”

That sounds a lot like the restrained “anvil in a velvet glove” wines you tend to discover in Burgundy, so there will need to be some careful selectivity.

We’d suggest you use the esteemed US wine magazine (and prime Pinot spotter) Wine Spectator as a travel guide. Its most awarded Oregon wineries in its Top 100 over the last ten years include Shea, Argyle, Archery Summit, Lemelson, Ken Wright, Elk Cove, Benton Lane, King Estate, Sineann and Rex Hill. You’ll find an eclectic bunch of winemakers some of whom might just approximate the look of the aforementioned fur trappers, while others appear to be refugees from San Francisco’s 60s Haight-Ashbury district. The Napa this is not, but Oregon is full of friendly, accommodating tractor cap wearing wine people with red-toothed grins from ear to ear.

If these picks seem to be too “beaten track” obvious for you, as an earthy alternative you might like to seek out the small, hand made and obscure – like the highly regarded wines of Merrilee Buchanan Benson at Tyee Wine Cellars, see Bruce Schoenfeld’s delightful blog.

Finally, if you don’t want to shell out the few grand to fly to the US but would like to tick another Pinot box by tasting some of that Oregon cranberry/earth flavour, contact Steve Naughton at his Pinot Now Pinot shop in Melbourne. He stocks 30 odd wines from more than a dozen wineries from the Willamette Valley, among them the highly regarded Ponzi Vineyards, Elk Cove and The Eyrie (Oregon’s Pinot pioneer) as well as other Pinots from Australia, New Zealand and Champagne and Burgundy.

But then that’s another Pinosity story…