ABCs of Oregon Pinot Noir
Oregon's signature wines are heavily influenced by the clones used to make them, the evolution of vineyard architecture and each AVA's unique terroir
Oregon’s Pinot Noirs get some of their character from specific clonal selections. The most successful early wines used clones known locally as Pommard and Wädenswil. (Pommard is actually UCD 4 or 5, Wädenswil UCD 1A or 2A, widely planted in California and elsewhere.) Pommard usually produces darker fruit flavors and fleshier texture. Wädenswil often is lighter in flavor and texture, but can be more tannic.
For decades these clones alone made beautiful wines, but because cooler, rainier growing seasons can leave them less ripe, Oregon reached out to Burgundy. In 1984, urged by David Adelsheim, Oregon State University acquired a number of Pinot Noir clones from scientist Raymond Bernard, who was propagating specific Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones in Beaune. These clones ripened earlier and provided a wider palette of flavors and characteristics. By 1989, vine cuttings of the so-called Dijon clones were released from quarantine. For several years Oregon had a monopoly on them; they are now widely planted throughout the New World. Today, Oregon vineyards grow a mix of Pommard, Wädenswil and Dijon clones, known by such three-digit numbers as 113, 114, 115, 667 and 777. Back labels on wine bottles often proudly specify the clonal mix.
The evolution of vineyard architecture has also contributed to what’s in the bottles. Early on, vines were widely spaced, about 450 vines per acre, the leaves spreading out and down from the top of each vine. In the 1980s, growers reshaped their vineyards to look more like Burgundy’s. They narrowed the distance between rows and between vines, doubling, tripling or quadrupling the number of vines per acre, based on the idea that each vine could put all its energy into fewer, more flavorful bunches. Growers also trained shoots vertically, opening up the area around the grape bunches and allowing leaves and fruit to capture more sunlight. Now standard practice in Oregon’s (and California’s) best vineyards, these efforts have resulted in better, more consistent fruit quality.
Behind the scenes, Oregon had one more secret weapon: a formula developed at Oregon State University that could accurately predict vineyard yields early in the growing season. “The No. 1 thing that ever happened to Oregon wine quality was crop estimation,” says Rollin Soles, of Argyle, who credits Steve Price for the formula that allowed growers to know how much crop to drop for the quality they wanted. “Without that formula, we were constantly guessing wrong. Sometimes we left too many bunches, and the grapes wouldn’t ripen well. Other times we took off too much and it cost us in lost revenue.”
It’s the combination of all these factors—the terroir, the science and a lot of unglamorous work—that makes Oregon what it is.
Highway 99W, once merely the fastest way from Portland to the beach, has become the wine route. Within a few minutes’ drive southwest of Oregon’s largest city, the road rises over the Chehalem Mountains, which define the northern end of the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA). That quickly, you’re in prime Pinot Noir country.
The highway connects towns along the valley for nearly 100 miles, but most of Oregon’s top-rated Pinot Noirs grow in vineyards within an hour or so of Portland. As the road winds south along the valley floor, clusters of low hills rise to the sides. The contours of these hills define six sub-AVAs, all on the west side of the Willamette River as it winds north. Seen from the air, they look like small bumps in the valley’s large expanse of 3.4 million acres, but each has its own assortment of microclimates and soils that produce distinctive characteristics in the wines.
Chehalem Mountains (70,000 acres; 1,600 planted) lies within the mountain range that stretches 20 miles from the Coast Range across the northern limits of the Willamette Valley. This largest of the sub-AVAs has a variety of soil types, and the wines range from light and delicate to highly structured. Estate vineyards include Ponzi, Adelsheim, Chehalem (Corral Creek) and Roco.
Ribbon Ridge (3,350 acres; 500 planted), an uplifted spur of ocean sediment, tucks into the southwestern edge of the Chehalem Mountains AVA and is protected by the mountains around it. Wines veer toward black fruit, with spicy, chocolaty overtones. Estate vineyards include Beaux Frères, Brick House, Chehalem (Ridgecrest), Patricia Green and Trisaetum.
Yamhill-Carlton (60,000 acres; 1,200 planted) forms a horseshoe of hills to the east and north of the towns of Yamhill and Carlton, melding with the Coast Range to the west. The top end lies across the valley from Ribbon Ridge, with marine soils that are particularly well-drained. The wines tend to be fleshy in texture, and tilt toward dark fruit flavors, often highly perfumed. Estate vineyards include Elk Cove, Patton Valley, Shea, WillaKenzie, Soter and Ken Wright (Savoya, Abbott Claim).
Dundee Hills (12,500 acres; 1,750 planted) sits just west of 99W. Reddish clay and loam soils cover a basalt land mass. Wines taste of red fruits with earthy, loamy overtones. Eyrie’s original vineyards were among the first planted. Estate vineyards include Archery Summit, Bergström, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene and Erath.
McMinnville District (40,500 acres; 600 planted) lies along the inland folds of the Coast Range near the town of that name. Ocean winds blow through the Van Duzer Gap, which cuts into the mountains here, producing firm-textured wines. Estate vineyards include Brittan, Maysara, Yamhill Valley and Youngberg Hill.
Eola-Amity Hills (40,000 acres; 1,300 planted) rises from the valley floor on the east side of 99W, just northwest of Salem, the state capital. Shallow soils are mostly volcanic, with sedimentary rocks. Exposure to ocean winds through the Van Duzer Gap cools the region in summer. Wines show dark fruit, often pierced with mineral notes. Estate vineyards include Amity, Bethel Heights, Cristom, Evening Land and Witness Tree.
Other vineyards also produce outstanding Pinot Noirs. Several well-regarded vineyards in the Coast Range don’t fall within the established sub-AVAs, including Resonance (sourced by Sineann) and Freedom Hill (sourced by Ken Wright and others). Around Salem and south past Eugene, the vineyards are more widely scattered. Land is not as pricey as in the northern sub-AVAs, so the wines often cost less. Grapes from vineyards here can fill out less-expensive Willamette Valley blends, some of which can be excellent values. Some notable estate vineyards in the southern part of Willamette Valley include Benton-Lane, Broadley, Cardwell Hill and Iris. King Estate anchors the southern end of the valley.
Beyond Willamette, the farther south or inland you go, grapes other than Pinot Noir come to the fore. The parts of Columbia Valley that lie on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, including Columbia Gorge, have some Pinot Noir but seem to do better with whites. Umpqua, mid-state in the Coastal Range, is home to Henry Estate, better known for Chardonnay. Warmer Rogue Valley in the south can excel at Syrah, red Bordeaux and Spanish varieties.