I spent three days in Oregon’s Willamette Valley this past week. My task? To learn as much as I can about this region, especially its Pinot Noirs. My first day consisted of visits to Argyle Winery, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Erath Winery.
“There’s not enough heat or sunlight to ripen Pinot Noir here,” said Rollin Soles, Argyle’s owner and winemaker, as we drove up to the Knudsen Vineyard, a major source of fruit for his still and sparkling wine programs. I wasn’t entirely convinced, as it was already more than 80° F at 7:30 a.m. and well on its way to the forecasted 100° F high.
The only way to ripen Pinot in the Willamette Valley was to plant on the best-exposed slopes, i.e. south-facing, between about 300 and 800 feet above sea level. And to do everything right viticulturally.
For example, Knudsen, in the Dundee Hills AVA, is situated between 600 and 800 feet from top to bottom. Soles picks between 10 to 14 days later at the top of the slope to get full ripeness. That’s the effect of elevation in the Willamette Valley.
Like Burgundy, there is a sweet spot in the middle, where the best-quality fruit ripens.
However, unlike in Burgundy, there has been a very rapid evolution in the approach to growing Pinot Noir during the past 30 years here. Soles was about to give me an education.
Cal Knudsen planted the vineyard in the early 1970s. Because of the orchard tractors in use in the region, the spacing was 9 feet by 9 feet instead of the traditional 12'x12’ in California.
In 1982, vines were interplanted in the rows to increase density. The new plantings did not develop at the same rate as the original vines, however.
At the same time, the canopy was converted from California sprawl, where the clusters were shaded, to vertical shoot positioning, after the Alsace model. Soles, whose team was managing the vineyard in the early days, also began leaf pulling to get more sun on the grapes and increase air flow in the canopy.
“Small changes to vineyards at higher latitudes make big differences in quality,” explained Soles, who credits Knudsen for making the investments in the vineyard if an increase in quality was apparent.
An irrigation system was installed in 1987 and new plantings increased the density by spacing the vines 7 feet by 5 feet. Then, in 2001, after some convincing by Robert Drouhin, Soles replanted a block in the Knudsen vineyard with 5 foot by 5 foot spacing, using several devigorating rootstocks and Dijon clones. “That’s where we are today,” he said, noting that the way you farm is more important than the clonal material.
Soles makes some of the best sparkling wines in the country from cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We tasted a range of Argyle’s bubblies. Look for its Brut Willamette Valley Extended Tirage 2000, a blend of 54 percent Pinot Noir and 46 percent Chardonnay, scheduled for release in September. Soles gave me a preview, and this is packed with rich pear, plum and honey notes, remaining focused and fresh despite its fullness, with a lingering aftertaste.
We also tasted a range of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, culminating in the Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Spirithouse 2006 (from the Knudsen vineyard), full of gorgeous, sweet black cherry and wild berry aromas and flavors matched to a juicy, supple texture, and Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Reserve 2007, an elegant, cherry-, red currant- and spice-scented red, with accents of licorice.
The Oregon wine scene changed in 1988 when Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy purchased land in the Dundee Hills and planted a vineyard in 1970.
What Drouhin brought was not only validation of Oregon as a potential source of great Pinot Noir, but experience and techniques from the spiritual home of the grape. He planted the vineyard densely, about 3,000 vines per acre rather than the traditional 800 to 1,400 vines per acre, with wider spacing.
The Domaine Drouhin wines were also made with indigenous yeasts and spontaneous malolactic conversion, typical for winemaking in Burgundy, but not for Oregon Pinots, most of which were fermented with commercial yeast.
The wines are hand-picked and hand-sorted, mostly destemmed, and then the juice flows by gravity into the fermenting tanks. The maturation takes place in a range of barrels from new to five years old, with a maximum of 25 percent new oak. The Willamette Valley Pinot spends about 10 to 12 months in oak; the Laurène and Louise bottlings as much as 15 months. They are released after 18 months in bottle.
Assistant winemaker Arron Bell described the 2008 vintage as classic, with a warm summer that cooled off at the end of August. The fall rains never arrived, however, allowing the Drouhin team to pick stress-free over a four-week period.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon's estate vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA.
The 2007 vintage witnessed a rainy harvest, making it a challenging year and one that was picked in “fits and starts,” but ultimately the weather pattern was cooler without the more tropical winds from the southwest, preventing too much botrytis from growing and preserving acidity in the grapes.
Bell described the vats picked before the rains as fruity, those picked afterward as higher in acidity.
The Chardonnay Dundee Hills Arthur 2008, from 100 percent estate fruit is half-fermented in stainless steel with no malolactic and half barrel fermented with malolactic. It was fresh and restrained, with lemon, apple and a hint of peach flavors, refined, with bright acidity and a citrus finish.
Drouhin’s Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2007 comes from 95 percent estate grapes, with purchased fruit from the Durant (Dundee Hills) and Nicholas (Chehalem Mountains) vineyards. A touch of earth grounded the strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors of this elegant, silky red.
The Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Laurène 2006, a selection of barrels from the estate grapes, showed ripe, succulent cherry and plum notes, both concentrated and elegant, with a long, peppery finish. The Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Louise 2007 is an even smaller barrel selection from the Laurène lots and often comes from Drouhin’s 96 EW Cloth block.
David Millman, Drouhin's managing director in Oregon, opened a bottle of the Laurène Domaine Selection 1998 over lunch. Still a vivid cherry color, it revealed a gorgeous bouquet of zesty cherry and raspberry and focused, sweet fruit flavors matched to a silky texture and elegant frame. At 12 years of age, it was an Oregon Pinot at or close to its peak.
The Erath Winery, founded in 1968 by Willamette Valley pioneer Dick Erath, was acquired by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2006. This provided winemaker Gary Horner much-needed investments in both the vineyards and winery.
Erath is large by Oregon standards. It vinifies 450 acres of fruit, mostly from the Dundee Hills AVA, with additional grapes from McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton District, Chehalem Mountains and the Umpqua Valley.
The wines are made at a state of the art custom-crush facility in Dundee, where Horner ferments as many as 40 lots of Pinot Noir in any vintage.
There are three tiers of wines at Erath: The Oregon tier, made up mostly of white wines; the Estate Selection tier, made in the style of what Horner calls “A style of older, historic Oregon wines that show bright fruit, alcohol under control and a bump of acidity at the end;” and a series of single-vineyard Pinots at the top of the range.
For example, in 2006, a ripe vintage, Horner went higher in elevation on the hillsides to maintain freshness and elegance for the Estate Selection. In ’08, a cooler vintage, it was no problem keeping the wines within the parameters of fruit, acidity and alcohol that he seeks.
Horner looks for a soft, silky style of Pinot. After destemming, the fruit is sorted to eliminate shot berries, stem pieces, leaves and any undesirable materials, leaving the best-quality whole berries.
He inoculates for both primary fermentation and malolactic to get the wines stable and into barrel before Christmas so they are protected. He avoids big extractions to avoid bitterness, fermenting slowly at cooler temperature (75° F), for a long, slow extraction of anthocyanins, the color pigments.
This gentle extraction includes pulsed air to break up the cap. Horner also uses some micro-oxygenation on the Estate Selection and new French oak blocks immersed in the tank allow him to mimic barrel aging in a 6,000-liter tank.
The vineyard-designated Pinots are aged in barrel for 15 months, seeing as much as 70 percent new French oak.
The whites are pressed as whole clusters, then fermented in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures. I liked the mouthwatering freshness and juicy citrus and apple flavors of the Pinot Blanc Willamette Valley 2009.
Though still tight, the Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Estate Selection 2008 offered a spicy, cedary nose, with bright red berry notes underneath on a structure of lively acidity.
In the single-vineyard range, the Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Battle Creek 2007 displayed spice and tomato aromas and black fruit and root-beer flavors, matched to a grainy, dense texture balanced by bright acidity. It lingered nicely on the finish.
I found more floral and strawberry notes in the Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Prince Hill 2006, accented by herb and earth. It had an elegant, lacy feel, with a firm finish. Prince Hill was planted to the Pommard clone in 1983.
The Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Leland 2006 is a bit of an anomaly in Oregon. A rare vineyard planted on a flat site east of the Willamette River toward the Cascade Range, Leland is a very labor-intensive, marginal vineyard, according to Horner. “It needs every leaf [possible] to ripen,” he said.
It showed a lovely, juicy fruit nose of cherry and raspberry, followed by a pure, black currant flavor with a firm texture underneath and beautiful balance and texture overall.
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