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Oregon's Burgundian Knot

Pinot Noir quality has never been better, but pricey single-vineyard bottlings proliferate

Harvey Steiman
Posted: June 19, 2002

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  Top-Scoring Wines From Oregon  
  Smart Buys From Oregon  
  Best-Value Wines From Oregon  

More Oregon wineries than ever are producing fine Pinot Noirs. The only trouble is that even after a series of good to outstanding vintages that started with 1998, many of the best wines still are made in tiny quantities and are difficult to find.

Although prices are edging higher, big crops in the two most recent vintages have kept them from getting completely out of hand. And there are still some bargains to be found, especially among wines that score 87 to 89 points, or very good, on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.

More typically, buyers must spend at least $17 or $18 to get a Pinot Noir that scores from 85 to 89 points and start at $25 to $30 for one that rates outstanding, 90 to 94 points.

Most of the Oregon Pinot Noirs available now are from 1999, which is being touted as the state's best vintage ever. A few are from 2000, which isn't that far behind 1999 in quality. The other shoe finally dropped in 2001, when rain interrupted the vintage, but not before some of the better winegrowers had picked all their grapes.

Just how good has Oregon Pinot Noir become? One indication is its overall batting average. About one-third of the 239 Pinot Noirs tasted for this report scored 90 points or higher, and another 58 wines scored 88 or 89 points.

The frustrating part is that only three wineries made more than 2,000 cases of an outstanding Pinot Noir: Domaine Drouhin made 9,000 cases of its 1999 (90, $40), Beaux Frères made 2,450 cases of its Beaux Frères Vineyard 2000 (92, $63) and Ponzi made 2,215 cases of its Reserve 1999 (92, $55). Another eight wines topped 1,000 cases. The majority, however, are single-vineyard wines in the 200- to 400-case range, which makes them hard to find.

One winery alone, Ken Wright Cellars, made 11 of those 90-plus wines, counting the 1999s and 2000s, which were released this past year. Bethel Heights and Rex Hill each had six. Argyle released four.

In 1999, Ken Wright Cellars bottled individual wines from a dozen different vineyards. Panther Creek did seven individual vineyards, plus a reserve. Cristom, which divides its own vineyard into 11 minisites, bottles three of them separately. Bethel Heights does the same with three of its blocks, plus an estate-bottled wine and three bottlings naming independent vineyards. Even Beaux Frères, which started in 1991 intending to make one wine from its 24-acre estate vineyard, is getting into the act. Under its Belles Soeurs label, it issued three wines from 1999.

"I don't know if the consumer is getting tired of it," says Michael Etzel, the partner who makes the wines at Beaux Frères. "But I've heard people, mostly restaurateurs and wine merchants, complaining about so many single-vineyard bottlings."

Why so many? The model, of course, is Burgundy, where the individually named vineyards are not only small but are also usually divided among several owners who, in turn, make wine from parts of several different vineyard sites. Burgundians revere terroir, the idea that each vineyard location produces a wine with distinct character. While they often blend several vineyards into a single wine, they separate their best lots into individual bottlings.

Why not use some of the better fruit to improve the estate wine or the lower-priced Willamette Valley bottling? "We wrestled with that," sighs Terry Casteel, Bethel Heights' winemaker. "We feel they are distinctive, and we prefer the wines separately. They have distinct personalities, and they're complete wines."

One reason there are so many single-vineyard wines is that the growers insist on it. They want to sell their grapes to the best wineries, and it only boosts the grower's reputation if the vineyard's name appears on the label. "It does not enhance the reputation of a vineyard to sell its grapes to a winery that will eventually bury the resulting wine in its 'Oregon' or 'Willamette Valley' blend," adds Casteel.

As in Burgundy, when several vintners make wine from the same vineyard, it gives wine drinkers a chance to see how different winemakers get the vineyard's character to express itself. For example, in 1999, Bethel Heights, Lange, Panther Creek, Willamette Valley Vineyards and Ken Wright made wines from Freedom Hill, a unique vineyard on silty soils west of Salem. The wines have a plump generosity, and several of them have the same cherry and berry flavors. Four out of five rated outstanding.

Beyond Pinot Noir, Oregon continues to make Chardonnays that offer sound value, even if they do not match ratings with the best from California. As with Pinot Noir, many of the best wines are small in volume. Oregon reds other than Pinot Noir show uneven results. Abacela, in Umpqua Valley, is showing sporadic success with offbeat varieties such as Tempranillo and Dolcetto, as well as Syrah and Merlot.

So for now, Oregon is mostly Pinot Noir country, though you might want to try its best Chardonnays and Pinot Gris for a change of pace. As far as the best Pinots go, you can look forward to high quality -- but you may need the fortitude of Lewis and Clark to find them.

Editor at large Harvey Steiman is Wine Spectator's lead taster of wines from Oregon. He is based in San Francisco.

Top-Scoring Wines From Oregon

Wine Score Price
ARGYLE Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Nuthouse 1999 93 $40
Distinctive, with delicious orange cream and floral grace notes to the rich cherry and raspberry flavors.
ARGYLE Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Spirithouse 1999 93 $50
Soft, plush and round, with seductive, exotic spice notes weaving through rich plum, berry and sweet leather flavors.
DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir Oregon Laurène 1998 93 $55
Centers on dazzling raspberry, blackberry, vanilla and roasted game notes that harmonize beautifully on the lively finish.
BEAUX FRÈRES Pinot Noir Willamette Valley The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2000 92 $63
Beautifully balanced to focus its currant, blueberry and blackberry fruit on superfine tannins.
CRISTOM Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Louise Vineyard 1999 92 $39
A swirl of flavor on a velvety frame, offering blackberry, plum and currant flavors, with floral and spice hints.
DOMAINE SERENE Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Grace Vineyard 1999 92 $75
Beautifully focused to show off its plum, blueberry, mineral and spice flavors.
PONZI Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Reserve 1999 92 $55
Bright and juicy, with fine-grained tannins around lively currant, raspberry and plum flavors.
REX HILL Pinot Noir Oregon Maresh Vineyard Reserve 1999 92 $52
Generous with its rich plum, cherry and currant flavors, wrapped with spicy, creamy oak notes on the long finish.
ARGYLE Chardonnay Willamette Valley Nuthouse 1999 91 $28
Gets its excitement from the tension between ripe fruit flavors and spicy oak. Generous pear, peach and citrus.
EOLA HILLS Chardonnay Oregon Mystery Block Reserve 2000 90 $20
Round, polished and supple, with pretty pear, apricot and a touch of honey as the flavors linger softly and generously.
ELK COVE Riesling Willamette Valley Ultima 2000 91 $35/375ml
Sweet, unctuous and yummy with honeyed apricot, floral and cream flavors.
ANDREW RICH Gewürztraminer Oregon 2000 90 $20/375ml
Sweet and silky, offering distinctive honey, litchi and rose petal flavors.

Smart Buys From Oregon

Wine Score Price
EOLA HILLS Pinot Noir Oregon La Creole Vineyard Reserve 1999 90 $25
Light and airy in texture, with pretty plum and currant flavors weaving through the spicy caramel notes.
ADELSHEIM Pinot Noir Oregon 1999 89 $25
Soft, round and generous, a gentle mouthful of blackberry and cherry, and juicy acidity to balance.
BETHEL HEIGHTS Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Estate Grown 1999 89 $25
Dense and ripe, with chewy tannins surrounding a bright core of currant, berry and subtle toasty flavors.
ARGYLE Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2000 88 $18
Fresh and lively, with pretty berry, citrus and mint flavors that echo nicely on the surprisingly intense finish.
FLYNN Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Estate Bottled 1999 87 $17
Firm in texture, with juicy acidity to balance the dark, ripe berry flavors that linger on the lively finish.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY Pinot Noir Oregon 1999 87 $17
Bright and juicy, with firm tannins surrounding a lively core of blackberry and spice flavors.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Whole Cluster 2000 87 $15
Fresh and lively, reminiscent of Beaujolais for its overt fruitiness. Bright currant and berry flavors.

Best Values From Oregon

Wine Score Price
EOLA HILLS Pinot Noir Oregon 1999 87 $12
Soft in texture, with lively wild berry, cherry and spice flavors, and a touch of herb on the velvety finish.
ERATH Pinot Noir Oregon 2000 86 $14
Light, almost transparent, with pretty strawberry and raspberry flavors touched with vanilla on the silky finish.
EOLA HILLS Merlot Oregon 1998 85 $11
Firm and chewy. A solid red with decent blackberry and cedar flavors, echoing exotic oak notes on the finish.
DUCK POND Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Frie's Family Cellars 2000 83 $9
Light and fruity, with jazzy berry and floral aromas and flavors, finishing lively.

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