People have been making wine in Oregon since settlers first came to the area in the 1840s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that people began to realise that quality wine, especially Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, could be produced commercially in Oregon.
Some of the most highly regarded Pinot Noir produced in the United States comes from Oregon, specifically the Willamette Valley. It’s probably not a coincidence then that the Willamette Valley is at the same latitude and has a similar climate as the Burgundy region of France, where Pinot Noir grapes make some of the best wines in the world.
People might not think they recognise Oregon’s other major grape – Pinot Gris – until they hear it makes Italy trademark white wine, Pinot Grigio.
The Journal sat down over lunch at Ortanique with three of Blackbeard’s wine specialists – Jodie Petts, Jeremy Corday and Lee Quessy – to discuss and taste some of Oregon’s fine Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris offerings.
Prior to the 1960s, the wine made in Oregon wasn’t very good
, and it wasn’t always made with grapes.
“They were making a lot of fruit wines,” says Petts, referring the inexpensive wines made from fruits like berries, apples, pears and cherries. “Up until the 1960s, Oregon was never known as a good wine place.”
That changed when a small number of people recognised Oregon’s potential for growing certain grapes and travelled up the coast from California to establish wineries in the state. Richard Sommer was first in 1961. He was followed by other pioneers, including Dick Erath, Chuck Coury and David Lett, all who planted Pinot Noir grapes in Oregon the 1960s.
Corday says others tried to convince Erath not to go to Oregon.
“People told him he was crazy to try and produce wine in that area,” he says.
Although it was Sommer who became known as the father of Oregon wine, it was Lett who put Oregon Pinot Noir on the world’s map, earning him the nickname Papa Pinot.
The turning point occurred in 1979, when Lett entered his 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir in the ‘Wine Olympics’ blind tasting competition in Paris. To the shock of the judges, Lett’s wine placed third in the Pinot Noir Category. In another competition staged the following year in Paris, Lett’s Pinot moved up to second place, firmly establishing Willamette Valley as a world-class Pinot Noir growing region.
The Pinot Noir grape is known to produce some of the world’s best wines, but it’s also known for its finicky nature. Like Goldilocks, it prefers a climate that is just right. In general, it prefers a cool to cold climate that still gets plenty of sunshine, and not too much rain.
Located on the coastal side of the Cascade Mountains, the Willamette Valley, stays cool during the summer and is often foggy at night, providing the perfect environment for Pinot Noir.
Pinot Gris, which is thought to be a mutant clone of the Pinot Noir grape, also likes cool climates and is also right at home in the coastal areas of Oregon.
Because Oregon’s autumn weather can be just as fickle as the Pinot Noir grape, Quessy
says the biggest challenge for Oregon winemakers is deciding when to harvest.
“One of the big things in Oregon is deciding whether to harvest before or after the rains start,” he says. “It’s always a gamble.”
If the grapes are harvested too early, they don’t develop the complexities that characterise good Pinot Noir wine. If they are picked too late and the rains come heavily, it can cause rot and other problems that can severely limit yield or even ruin the entire crop.
“That’s why they say there’s always two different harvests in Oregon,” Quessy said, noting that some winemakers invariably choose the safer route and pick early, while others go for a better quality and harvest late.
For the lunch, Petts poured two Oregon Pinot Gris wines with the seafood appetizers, Caribbean-style salt fish fritters and two different, fresh fish ceviches.
The first sampled is 2009 Cooper Hill Pinot Gris (Retail $15.99),
an easy-drinking, off-dry wine with a bouquet of citrus fruits. On the palate it is clean and fresh, with juicy fruit flavours and crisp acidity.
Corday likes the pairing.
“This is a great seafood wine,” he says. “It’s also great with hot, spicy foods, like with scotch bonnet pepper. It would also be great if you were out on a boat for the day.”
Cooper Hill is a favourite of Petts, so much so that it is the only winery that she has ordered wine from for Blackbeard’s on the spot after her first tasting.
“The thing I like most about Cooper Hill is that it is a very small, family production,” she says, noting that Cayman Distributors Ltd. buys half of Cooper Hill’s entire production.
Like many Oregon wineries, Cooper Hill produces certified organic and biodynamic wines.
“As a state, Oregon is very dialed into being green,” says Corday.
Next poured was Erath Winery Pinot Gris ($17.99), Made by the winery established by Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath – who was the first to cultivate grapes in the Dundee Hills of Willamette Valley – this wine tastes clean, with crisp tartness and no butteriness caused by oak aging or malolactic fermentation.
Petts notes that the winemakers have purposely looked to produce the wine in a similar fashion to that done in Alsace, one of two principle growing areas for Pinot Gris in France.
In the mouth, Petts says the Erath is slightly more acidic than the Cooper Hill, something that gives it more structure. Because of this, she sees Erath Pinot Gris as being a good ‘food wine’.
With its high acidity, Pinot Gris pairs well with oily fish like salmon, and also meaty white-fleshed fish like swordfish, wahoo and king fish. It also goes well with shellfish.
Corday says that both of the Oregon Pinot Gris wines were given 89-point ratings and were both priced less than $
20 retail, a very good value.
Quessy said that when compared with most exported Italian Pinot Grigios, he would much rather drink Oregon Pinot Gris and get a better wine for equal or less cost.
For the main courses, Petts poured four different Oregon Pinot Noir: Erath ($22.99); Erath Estate ($31.99); Cooper Mountain Reserve ($24.99); and Loring “Shea Vineyard” ($49.99).
All of the wines exhibit differences from Pinot Noir made in California, which tends to be more fruity.
Corday says there are aspects of Oregon Pinot Noir that reflect Burgundy.
“It has New World fruit and a hint of earthiness that you can find in Burgundian Pinot,” he says, “It has a little bit of an Old World feel at a fraction of the price.”
Petts points to the minerality as the thing that differs most Oregon Pinot Noirs from those made in California .
Petts has salmon for lunch, one of the classic pairings with Pinot Noir, which is generally seen as a very food friendly wine that can handle a lot of different pairings.
“I like oily fish with Pinot Noir,” Petts says, noting that the high acidity of the wine acts as a good palate cleanser for the oil in the fish.
Tasting the 2008 Erath Pinot, she notes its cherry taste tones and the “acid spine”, which gives the wine its structure.
Quessy says the 2008 vintage in Oregon was excellent.
“They say it was the vintage of the decade for Willamette,” he said, adding that 2006 was also considered very good.
Although the 2008 Cooper Mountain Reserve retails for less than the other three Pinot Noirs, it is a superb wine with depth, elegance and balance, making it an outstanding value. Quessy says its one of his favourites tasted that day.
The 2008 Erath Estate was harvested late, giving it concentrated colour and flavours, to go with good structure. This was a wine that could stand up to beef, lamb or other red meats, but is also very good with the swordfish served by Ortanique.
On the palate were flavours of vanilla, a common thread with many New World Pinot Noirs.
Last tasted was the 2006 Loring “Shea Vineyard”
, a Oregon Pinot Noir with enough tannin structure to age up to six or seven years. Now five years old, this silky Pinot Noir still has good fruitiness and acidity.
“It’s definitely a food Pinot Noir,” says Petts.
The four Pinot Noirs show a wide variety of taste and structure, showing difference in terrior similar to the way French Burgundy does. However, Petts notes that they are truly Oregon wines.
“For Americans who want to drink American wines, there are alternatives to California,” she notes.