I HAVE a thing about Pinot Noir. It’s my favourite red wine grape. In my book, the original and greatest Pinot Noir still comes from Burgundy although I’m greatly impressed by some examples from New Zealand.
Oregon specialises in Pinot Noir too, but until a fortnight ago, I hadn’t tasted many wines that hit my spot. And then at London’s annual tasting of Oregon wines the earth moved. The Pinot Noirs, especially the 2010s, were quite superb.
Most of Oregon’s 8,255 hectares of vines lie in the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland and 500 miles north of California’s most celebrated wine region, the Napa Valley. It has a near-ideal climate for this fickle variety, which occupies two-thirds of the vineyards.
But as David Adelsheim, one of the leading lights of the Oregon wine industry explained, it can also be a frustrating part of the world in which to grow grapes for a living.
Great Pinot Noir thrives on the edge. So far north, a cold June can disrupt flowering and decimate the crop before it has even set.
But every year is different. A successful flowering can produce a crop so generous that there’s no way the vines could ripen it all. The only solution is for the growers to exercise a ruthless policy of ‘green harvesting’ and cut off a large number of bunches in mid-season.
Unlike Washington State, Oregon’s neighbour in America’s ‘Pacific Northwest’, where most of the vineyards lie in the rain-shadow of the great Cascade Mountains, irrigation is not necessary in Oregon. Instead the growers have to plant cover crops between the rows to soak up excess moisture and restrict the vigour of the vines by making them compete harder for their resources from the soil.
In fact rainfall in the Willamette Valley is so abundant that around 1,000mm falls in winter alone, which is almost three times as much as we can normally expect in Newcastle. But quite unlike our region, virtually no rain falls in July and August, when there is almost always a summer drought.
Unfortunately, the clouds roll in again in autumn and the temperature drops. Harvest comes late, often well into October, but one benefit of the cool weather is that the grapes hang on to their acidity and ripen slowly, which means that they develop a fine aromatic complexity.
I asked David to describe the special characteristics of Oregon Pinot Noir.
“It’s the particular combination of acid and tannins that set them apart – fresh, elegant silky tannins,” he said. “They also have amazing longevity. Wines made back in the late eighties still taste good.”
As David also explained, the huge variety of soil types in the Willamette Valley results in a rich variety of subtle differences between wines. But overall, what impressed me most about the Pinot Noirs I tasted was the purity and complexity of fruit flavours. David’s own Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has a superb balance too, with just as he said, crisp acidity and firm but very elegant tannins. It also has a savoury quality which is quite Burgundian. Sadly, it isn’t available at the moment in the UK.
I also really enjoyed the wines from Bergstrom, all marked by a lovely silky texture (three very good, different wines all available from www.robersonwine.com), Domaine Drouhin, owned by one of Burgundy’s best houses (£25.75 from www.bbr.com), and Sokol.
In comparison, the lighter 2011s show more juicy red fruit characteristics, with Rex Hill utterly delicious, with its cherry-like fruit. The 2009 is available from www.exelwines.co.uk (£21.36).
Oregon’s second grape variety is Pinot Gris. Although Pinot Gris is grown in many climatic conditions around the world, like Pinot Noir (to which it’s closely related), I’m convinced that it does best in places where it isn’t too hot.
That’s why, for example, there have been so many good examples recently from New Zealand.
But Oregon really scores too with wines that combine the flavour of melon sprinkled with ginger, typical of Pinot Gris, with mouth-watering acidity.
There was nothing remotely dull about any of the wines I tasted, most of them from the 2011 harvest.
Firesteed, whose Pinot Gris was especially good, is my wine of the week. Their excellent 2009 Pinot Noir is also available locally from The Wine Chambers (£15.99) or from Carruthers and Kent (£16.99).
Although the Firesteed wines are very fair value for money, good Oregon Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris is never going to come cheap. It’s too much of a hand-crafted product and most wineries in the state are quite small. The average production is just 68,000 bottles per winery, per year, which is tiny compared to just about any other wine region outside Europe.
After the two Pinots, there’s a little bit of Chardonnay and Riesling and not a great deal else.
For bigger, richer flavours of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and some very impressive Chardonnay, it’s necessary to cross the Cascades into Washington.
I’ll come back to Washington in a week or two, but I strongly recommend discovering Oregon’s wines first. They’re well worth it.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Firesteed Pinot Gris 2011 £16.99 Carruthers & Kent
Toothsome dry white, with an aroma of fresh honeydew melons, with a hint of salty minerality and then a zingy, fresh melony taste, dusted with ginger. Lovely balance. Perfect with fish pie.
It's certainly impressive value for money with a big, grassy, green pepper aroma and a crisp, green, but mouth-filling flavour.
I am seldom excited by Prosecco, but I really like a new organic Prosecco Frizzante, which is not quite as fizzy as a full spumante. La Jara (£10.95 from www.swig.co.uk) has a lovely, forward smell of ripe pear and fresh grapes and a fairly dry, grapey taste.