As a wine lover, when you hear the word “Oregon,” what is the first varietal that comes to mind? Pinot Noir, naturally. This finicky grape thrives in environments where soft marine breezes and long hours of sunshine provide a warm, but not too hot, summer followed by a crisp, cool autumn during which the grapes can ripen gradually. But there are other varieties of grape that also do well in this beautiful state. Just take a look around.
The vast majority of vineyards planted to Pinot Noir in Oregon are found in this massive valley. Pinot Noir was first planted here by pioneer David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in 1965. Fourteen years later, David entered his wines in what Americans refer to as the Wine Olympics in Paris. His wines placed third among Pinots. In another competition the following year, arranged by French wine magnate Robert Drouhin, the Eyrie vintage improved to second place. Suddenly, Oregon found itself on the map as a world-class producer of Pinot Noir.
Today, the Willamette Valley contains six sub-AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill-Carlton. Each sub-AVA possesses a myriad of distinct microclimates and soils, but all provide a level of moderation suitable to Pinot Noir’s ripening needs. “For Pinot Noir, the ‘Goldilocks’ grape that likes it not too hot or too cold, that moderation is critical to flavor development,” explains Russell Gladhart of Winter’s Hill Vineyard, located in the heart of the Dundee Hills. “A grape can be considered ‘ripe’ when the sugar and acids fall within a certain range, but flavor development is much harder to quantify. If ‘ripeness’ is reached slowly, the fruit develops the complex flavors and elegant tannin[s] that we are seeking.”
The aromas and flavors of Pinot Noir are so worth exploring that the Austrian wine glass company Riedel developed a glass especially for Oregon Pinot Noir. It has a large bowl for maximum aromatic development and a slightly narrowed opening to concentrate and enhance the impression of the nose. It also has a thin rim at the top to better deliver the wine to the palate.
Much can be said about the delights of Oregon Pinot Noirs, but there are many more wines coming from the state of Oregon. In the 150-acre estate vineyard of Winter’s Hill alone, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc develop alongside the Pinot Noir. Russell’s French-born wife Delphine is a skilled winemaker who crafts these grapes into magnificent dessert wines, including a Late Harvest Pinot Gris and a sought-after Golden Nectar wine.
Hood River County
In the northeastern corner of the state, long known for its crisp, flavorful apples and pears, Hood River County wines have gained a loyal following. Hood River County’s strength lies in its cool-climate varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. More specifically, the western end is ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, while the eastern end is drier and sunnier, yielding Rhône and Italian grapes like Cabernet, Syrah, and Zinfandel.
When Franco Marchesi began planting grapes for his boutique winery, Marchesi Vineyards, he chose to specialize in Italian varieties, starting with Barbera. Franco hails from Piemonte, Italy, and he points out that the Hood River County area has similar latitude, number of daylight hours, and climate characteristics. He notes that Italian grapes thrive in the rich volcanic soils of Hood River, and he has the accolades to prove it. His 2008 Emma, Sangiovese won Double Gold at the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
“The word is spreading,” says Robb Bell, owner of Cathedral Ridge Winery in Hood River. His renowned winery has a portfolio of more than 40 white, red, and sweet wines, including award-winning Pinot Noir, Riesling, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, and Syrah. Fourth-generation Californian winemaker Michael Sebastiani crafts the wines. “We get people crossing the country in RVs, and those who come to the Willamette Valley also are lured up here,” Robb says. “Plus, we’re getting written up in Wine Spectator and other aficionado magazines.”
Back when Dyson DeMara worked for Robert Mondavi Winery, he got the itch to experiment in vineyards beyond the Napa Valley, and scoured the topography of Argentina, France, Germany, and Italy before settling on southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. He moved his family there in 2001 and purchased HillCrest Vineyard, the state’s oldest estate winery, in 2003. To this day, Dyson is amazed by the multifaceted topography and soils (he says there are more than 150) in the region. This diversity allows him to experiment beyond his wildest dreams.
Today, he’s concentrating on growing several Northern Rhône and Italian style varieties. The HillCrest portfolio reflects his adventures with several styles of wines, including Viognier, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. “At this point, Grenache and Viognier are the most surprising varieties,” Dyson reports. “They’re easy no-brainer matches for our conditions in the Umpqua Valley.” Dyson believes that the region’s future is about diversity, which allows winemakers to experiment with many different things. “Topographically, the Umpqua Valley varies more than any I’ve explored in the United States. It’s so diverse, we can’t really leverage what our neighbors are doing,” Dyson says. Perhaps it’s best to identify the Umpqua Valley— and the entire state of Oregon—with its breadth of possibilities rather than one single varietal.