Oregon retains focus on Pinot Noir

Shea Vineyard, a 140-acre planting established in the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area by Dick Shea, ranks among Oregon’s most prized sites for Pinot Noir. Bergström Wines has emerged as Shea Vineyard’s top client, contracting to purchase 10 percent of its fruit. (Photo by Carolyn Wells-Kramer, CWK Photography/Courtesy of the Oregon Wine Board)

A singular varietal focus gives Oregon a tremendous advantage in an ever-more crowded wine market.

When any wine lover around the globe says “Oregon wine,” “Pinot Noir” almost always comes to mind immediately. This is thanks to a singular focus dating back to the 1960s, when folks such as David Lett, Dick Ponzi and Dick Erath arrived and helped found the Oregon wine industry.

The first Pinot Noir was planted by Richard Sommer in the Umpqua Valley. Lett, known as “Papa Pinot” planted the first Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley in 1966. One of turning points came in 1979 when one of Lett’s Pinots shocked the world in a French judging.

Since then, a laser focus has remained on Pinot Noir, a red grape most famous in France’s Burgundy region and Northern California’s Russian River Valley. Of the nearly 90,000 tons of wine grapes harvested each year in Oregon, more than 50,000 tons are Pinot Noir. The state’s No. 2 red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, mostly coming from the Walla Walla Valley and used by Washington winemakers.

Here are nine Oregon Pinot Noirs we’ve tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Love & Squalor 2015 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $28

Portland vintner Matt Berson recently entered his second decade of Love & Squalor, and he named his duo-pronged passion project of Pinot Noir and Riesling as a tribute to iconic author J.D. Salinger. His flagship wine is this Pinot Noir, a melange of eight clones and six vineyards, primarily Sunny Mountain, Temperance Hill, Cherry Grove and Medici that represents about a third of his entire production. His choice of an 18-month program in mature French oak shows up merely as an enticing dusting of cocoa powder that’s behind the purple fruit tones of plum and blueberry. Fine-grained tannins are focused on the midpalate of this otherwise juicy approach.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 1,100 cases

Alcohol: 13.8%

Winery website

Alexana Winery 2015 Revana Vineyard Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $49

An example of Dr. Madaiah Revana’s exploration of Pinot Noir shows in this estate project that’s part of his 10th anniversary series in the Dundee Hills for Alexana Winery. (He established Revana Family Vineyards northwest of St. Helena in the Napa Valley a decade prior). This bottling encompasses the 10 clones planted across 46 acres, touching on 18 soil types. A handful of Dijon clones are joined by Pommard, Wadenswil as well as “suitcase clones” Coury and La Tache. Yet, the Dundee Hills shines through in this full-bodied Pinot Noir, offering a theme of raspberry pie, cranberry-rhubarb compote and earthiness surrounded by suave tannins, bright acidity and baking spices of clove and nutmeg.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 3,474 cases

Alcohol: 14.1%

Winery website

Bells Up Winery 2015 Titan Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $40

The late Leonard Bernstein is credited with raising the profile of 19th century German composer Gustav Mahler, particularly for Titan – the Symphony No. 1 in D Major nicknamed by Mahler as a tribute to the Jean Paul novel by the same name. Classical music hornist Dave Specter devoted about a quarter of his overall annual production to this Titan Pinot Noir, and as his own vineyard in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains takes root, he sources from the nearby Yamhill-Carlton region for this blend of Dijon clone 115 and 777 berries with Pommard. A brief seven months in 30% new French oak barrels offers tones of cranberry-rhubarb compote with sweet mulling spices. There’s a sense of Burgundy in the background as a rub of sandalwood is met by earthiness, saddle leather, red currant acidity and lower level of alcohol. That structure prompts the Newberg winery to promote this as a “red meat Pinot.”

Rating: Excellent

Production: 116 cases

Alcohol: 13.3%

Winery website

Le Cadeau Vineyard 2015 Rocheux Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $50

The Pommard/Dijon clone 777 blending program for this 20-year-old vineyard targets the rockiest western section of Le Cadeau Vineyard. Tom and Deb Mortimer, who developed the Parrett Mountain planting, named their site for the French phrase meaning “the gift.” And yet, nothing was given to them during the early phase of their vineyard’s development. Jim Sanders continues to steer this block-driven project toward a dark purple-fruited profile, starting with a spectacular nose of plum, blueberry, dried cherry and mint. On the pour, there’s nice balance with ripe notes of black currant and cola, backed by plum-skin tannins that offer ample grip.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 147 cases

Alcohol: 14.1%

Winery website

Elk Cove Vineyards 2015 Mount Richmond Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton, $60

One of Campbell family’s earliest-ripening sites, Mount Richmond became apart of the Elk Cove portfolio in 1996 when founding vintners Pat and Joe Campbell purchased the land as a partnership with second-generation winemaker Adam Campbell and his wife, Carrie. They’ve used cuttings from their venerable Roosevelt Vineyard to grow it into Elk Cove’s largest planting at 105 acres. This selection of top Pinot Noir lots of Dijon clone 115 and 777 as well as those Roosevelt-birthed Pommard spends 10 months in 50% new French oak barrels. All that work helps produce an immediately approachable, regal and ripe Pinot Noir with aromas and flavors of Marionberry, plum and cherry pie juice presented in a pleasing structure with a finish of Craisin.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 916 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

Knudsen Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $55

It’s ironic that proprietor Page Knudsen Cowles, who grew up in the Northwest and now lives in Minneapolis, hired a graduate of the University of Minnesota to make her family’s wines in the Willamette Valley. And yet, it was a natural move to go with Nate Klostermann of Argyle Winery, the right-hand man for renowned Rollin Soles who had worked with storied Knudsen fruit for decades. Wine Press Northwest magazine selected Knudsen Vineyards as its Oregon Winery to Watch in 2016, and this young brand launched with the 2012 vintage by scions of the late Cal Knudsen continues to show elegance. They chose to focus on Dijon clone 777 and Pommard for the 2015 vintage and dialed back the 15 months of oak influence, going from 25 percent new French barrels to 20 percent. Its beautiful garnet color leads to classic Dundee Hills high-toned red fruit aromas and flavors, hinting at Triple Berry Pie with cardamom, cranberry-rhubarb compote and a dusting of white pepper amid a structure that exhibits restraint.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 500 cases

Alcohol: 14.1%

Winery website

Alexana Winery 2015 Fennwood Vineyard Pinot Noir, Yamhill Carlton, $65

This Dundee Hills winery pulls this lot from Fennwood Vineyard at the southeast edge of the Yamhill-Carlton appellation, a rather tony neighborhood that includes Angela Estate’s Oak Springs Vineyard and Domaine Serene’s Abbey Oaks Vineyard. Bryan Weil’s lots from this 38-acre site produced aromas of plum jam, poached cherries and black pepper with bright and fruity flavors akin to a raspberry tart and blueberry jelly.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 196 cases

Alcohol: 13.9%

Winery website

Winter’s Hill Winery 2014 Block 10 Estate Single Block Series Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $49

The Gladhart family devoted Block 10 of its Pinot Noir plantings to the Pommard clone, and it has found a home at the highest elevations of its Dundee Hills holdings, topping out at 700 feet. Harvest came Sept. 20, and one of the two barrels were whole-cluster fermented. It’s a basket of cherries that includes complexity of cigar box, mint and cocoa powder, presented within the context of a lighter, fun and juicy boysenberry structure. Suggested pairings include this recipe for Halibut Fish Skillet.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 48 cases

Alcohol: 12.7%

Winery website

Plaisance Ranch 2014 Papa Joe’s Private Stash Pinot Noir, Applegate Valley, $25

Third-generation rancher Joe Ginet began providing vine material for the Oregon wine industry under his Plaisance Viticulture business before he fully transitioned his dairy into a winery in the Applegate Valley. He grows with a handful of Pinot Noir clones across his estate near Jacksonville. Traditionally, he’s focused on Pommard, 115 and 777 for this full-bodied drink that entices with aromas of Marionberry milkshake, blueberry, cherry pie and cola. Its easy-to-love presentation of fruit flavors includes cranberry-rhubarb jam, blueberry juice and a nibble of the seed.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 150 cases

Alcohol: 13.8%

Winery website