Oregon – Pinot Noir Country.


Most wine enthusiasts are familiar with Oregon’s Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but how many know that this Pacific Rim state produces more hazelnuts (filberts) than any country in the world?

Hazelnuts like cool climates, as do pinot family grapes. Oregon located on the same latitude (45º N) as Burgundy, is much cooler than California to the south and Washington to the north, except the Puget Sound appellation.

Although Oregon produces only 0.49 per cent of all American wines

(first is California with 91 per cent, followed by New York. with 4.5 per cent and Washington with 1.8 per cent ) its 125 wineries manage to get better recognition than their northern neighbour.

Oregon’s vitivinicultural history can be traced back to 1860 when the first vinifera grapes were planted. Since then with the exception of the Prohibition Era, the industry grew appreciably by the efforts of individuals such as R. Sommer, D. Lett, Erath and others who were advised by their University of California at Davis professors that Oregon could never grow enough grapes to make wine.

Well these students set out to prove their professor wrong and succeeded.

Today the state has over 10,000 acres under vine, and grows enough grapes to support 125 wineries.

From the very beginning, it industry decided to make and market varietal wines. The association agreed on strict controls in an attempt to uphold standards and convey a positive message to wine enthusiasts everywhere. There are four appellations Walla-Walla

(Oregon part of the region, south of the Columbia River ) , Willamette Valley, Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.

Walla-Walla in Oregon plays less of a role in wine production, but is more famous for its sweet onions, than those from Vidalia, Georgia.


is notoriously wet, yet in most years the majority of the rain falls between November and April.

Although much is made of comparing the latitude of Oregon to Burgundy, the all-important topography tends to be ignored. The best appelation of the state is Willamette Valley to the north, where vineyards lie on the foothills of the Coast Range offering protection from cool breezes of the Pacific Ocean.

D. Lett, the pioneer of Pinot Noir in Oregon, was a University of California, Davis student who decided to start his vinery in Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley. He believed that the cool climate would help create Burgundy-style wines, which he so admired. When his 1975 Pinot Noir won critical acclaim in a French-sponsored Burgundy tasting, and Joseph Drouhin, the famous Burgundian shipper, reconfirmed the results with a follow-up tasting, connoisseurs and professionals alike began to believe that outside Burgundy Oregon’s Dundee Hills were most suitable for this fickle grape (some call it the heartbreak grape). More importantly people started paying more attention when Joseph Drouhin purchased land a stone’s throw from the Lett property (There are those who claim that Ontario’s Niagara Bench has a more suitable climate and soil conditions for pinot noir than those prevailing in Oregon).

Today Drouhin’s daughter manages to produce fine Pinot Noir wines, as does D.Lett. But they are not the only two since Willa Kenzie, and Elk Cove are two others that truly excel with their 2007 and 2008 pinot noirs.

Elk Cove in Gaston is a 15,000c/s winery with 100 acres of holdings, and Willa Kenzie another 15,000 c/s winery vinifies only home grown fruit.

Both Elk Cove’s and Willa Kenzie’s pinot noirs are outstanding.

Erath (38,000 c/s and 100 acres) produces fine pinot gris and pinot noir.

Chateau Benoit (18,000 c/s) now owned by an agri-conglomerat continues to produce medium-bodied and fruity Pinot Gris, the other landmark grape of Oregon.

Sokol-Blosser a (20,000 c/s) is a family owned and managed winery that uses its own fruit but also purchases from long-term contract growers. Their Pinot Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon stand out with their delicate flavours and exquisite balance.

Rex Hill is a 30,000 c/s export oriented winery, mostly purchasing its fruit from reputable growers. Their Pinot Noir Reserve 2008 and Pinot Blanc are recommended.

The undulating topography of Oregon’s Willamette Valley seems to be perfectly suitable for cool climate grapes that belong to the pinot family. More and more vineyard managers are planting on slopes for better drainage and air circulation, thus reducing the number of  sprayings to combat humidity related vine diseases..

Oregon’s vitivinicultural structure will never make for entry-level-wine production, but for the high- end wines the sky seems to be the limit.

While many pundits fervently believe that pinots are perfectly suited I would like to extend the theory that Riesling is as appropriate, if not more so, given soil, climate and topography. Yet Riesling sells for considerably less than Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and even Pinot Blanc, simply because of poor demand.

Canadian liquor control boards usually shy away from Oregon listings because of their lack of fame, not quality.

There are, however, a few Toronto-based agents who carry a reasonably good selection of “ consignment “ wines from Oregon Restaurateurs interested in offering their guests intriguing wines should contact their agents.

Driving Willamette Valley’s back roads is fun, but a detailed road map is an absolute must. The valley’s and its sub-appellations sadly lack fine restaurants; this puzzles me. Generally, where good wine is made, food specialties abound


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