The devastating wildfires that hit Oregon’s Willamette Valley in September 2020 made for an unusual vintage.
Many winemakers were able to pick their fruit before smoke came pouring in, or long enough after it dissipated that the grapes were unaffected. Those who had ripe grapes during the worst of the fires faced a difficult choice. Should they pick their Pinot Noir and risk making a wine with smoke taint? Or should they abandon the fruit altogether?
Some grappling with that challenge opted for a third path. They made sparkling wine for the first time or decided to do a rosé with a miniscule amount of skin contact. And still others produced a wine that has flown under the radar in Oregon for many years: White Pinot Noir.
While the skin of Pinot Noir is an inky purple, the pulp has no color, which means it can be used for white wine. Left Coast Estate in Rickreall, which received a double gold medal for its 2020 White Pinot Noir at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition in October, has been doing that for 10 years. During the particularly cold vintage in 2011, the family-owned company looked into making sparkling wine with its grapes. Apprehensive about crafting a high volume of something they had no experience with, they decided to put half the grapes to sparkling and half to white wine.
It turned out to be a good decision. In the hands of winemaker Joe Wright, White Pinot is now one of Left Coast Estate’s flagship wines at 10,500 cases from the 2020 vintage. However, the comparison to sparkling wine is an apt one.
“Often people don’t think about Pinot Noir as a white wine, even though they’ve been drinking sparkling and Champagne for a while,” said Kate Payne Brown, winemaker at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton.
White Pinot is essentially a less acidic sparkling base served as a dry table wine. Like sparkling, it’s great with food, able to pair with lighter fare or cut through a rich meal.
Left Coast provides benchmark for White Pinot Noir
To make White Pinot, the grapes are very lightly pressed to ensure that little or no color is extracted from the grape skins. (Sometimes the wine will have a very pale pink tinge.) From there, it’s treated like a white wine.
Terry Brandborg, winegrower at Brandborg Vineyard & Winery in Elkton and a longtime White Pinot producer, begins with a whole-cluster press, then settles the juice before fermenting it in neutral barrels and puncheons. He does not encourage malolactic fermentation. Instead, he leaves the wine on the lees and stirs it frequently during aging.
“That helps build some structure and character into the wine,” Brandborg noted.
Stoller fermented some of its wine in concrete and some in oak in 2020, then “married all of those components together in stainless steel,” said Payne Brown. “We do that with some of our Chardonnay, too. I think it drives complexity over time. We’re trading fruit-forwardness for better texture, and something with amazing length and some yeasty characteristics.”
It’s common for White Pinot to go through barrel aging for six to 12 months, typically with more neutral than new oak.
Flavor profiles can vary depending on the year and location. Brandborg always detects a bit of quince, green apple and spice components in his wine. There is often a little pear, peach or cherry, as well as a floral component that leans toward jasmine or honeysuckle.
Taylor Pfaff, CEO of Left Coast Estate, has always liked White Pinot’s aromatics. In colder years, it tends toward citrus and melon. In warm ones, it can smell almost tropical.
“On the palate, it’s got a lot more body and structure than you get in other white wines,” he added. “It’s a really fun wine to blind taste people on. It really gets them thinking, and they probably won’t be able to guess it. It opens up that curiosity with your palate about what wine can and can’t be.”
Domaine Nicolas-Jay in Newberg was among the Oregon producers who made white and rosé wine with Pinot Noir in 2020 rather than risking a smoke-affected red.
“It’s not like the vintage was bad,” said co-owner Jay Boberg. “The vintage was terrific in terms of the weather and where the grapes were. Everybody, including us, was very excited about it.”
The rosé is already in Nicolas-Jay’s tasting room and has been well-received — perhaps not surprisingly, given that it was made with the brand’s premium grapes. Boberg also has high hopes for the White Pinot.
“It’s really taking on some interesting character,” he said. “We’re quite excited about how it’s developing.”
Although the team at Nicolas-Jay found making White Pinot an interesting exercise, its focus returned to premium Pinot Noir in 2021. But it’s quite possible some of those who made White Pinot out of necessity last year will craft it by choice in the future.
Stoller hadn’t vinified it since 2014. Rediscovering it in 2020 “was a light in a dark period because now we’re making it again this year,” said Payne Brown.
Bill Stoller’s team is farming specifically for White Pinot and plans to keep it in its lineup indefinitely.
Overall, Pfaff sees a bright future for White Pinot.
“I think it has a place as an emerging (product) on its own,” Pfaff said. “It’s going to increase in popularity. Oregon has great potential for it and it’s on a good trajectory.”
If you pick up a bottle of White Pinot Noir and think it must be a typo, think again. This wine of a different color is here to stay and worth sampling the next time the menu calls for white wine.
- Sophia McDonald’s Oregon Wine Tales focuses on Oregon wines and wineries. Her work has appeared in more than three dozen newspapers, magazines and trade publications, including TheAtlantic.com, Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well and Cheese Connoisseur.