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Re-Discovering Oregon

December 11, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s been more than 20 years since my first visit to Oregon. It’s been more than 20 years since I tried Oregon Pinot Noir for the first time. More than 150 posts in this very blog mention Oregon one way or the other, including 14 interviews with Oregon winemakers. And nevertheless, this year 2021 was the one when I really discovered Oregon as a winemaking region.

A picture worth a thousand words. When it comes to creating memories, a picture is definitely stronger than just words. What would be even better at creating memories than a picture? An experience. Seeing something with your own eyes, touching, smelling – a full sensory experience would certainly create the most lasting impressions.

In August of 2021, I attended the Wine Media Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Three days of the conference were so filled with wines, conversations, and more wines that these 3 days really became more like just one. One long, very eventful day. It was only after the conference was over, and I stayed behind for another 3 days to meet with winemakers and yes, drink more wine, that I finally had a moment to reflect and create an actual new impression.

We stopped at the rest area off the highway while driving to the first appointment at Le Cadeau with Carl Giavanti, and I found myself surrounded by the beautiful, tall, straight pine trees, standing magnificently over the clean forest floor. This view instantly transported me to my childhood – growing up in Belarus, this was the forest I was used to, full of tall, magnificent trees, perfectly suitable to become ship masts. And the air, the air – you breathe differently in a forest like that. This was a great beginning for my deep dive into Oregon.

And then, of course, seeing the vineyards, seeing the Kill Hill at Lenné and absorbing magnificent views from the vineyard, seeing and touching the rocks at Le Cadeau, and tasting the wines surrounded by the grapes – all of it guaranteed the creation of the long-lasting impressions. Even more, for the first time ever seeing the vines while they are going through veraison, the magnificent promise of the vintage was also a great way to create a strong proverbial “memory knot”.

During these 3 days, I met with winemakers I already virtually talked to before (Bells Up, Le Cadeau, Lenné, Utopia, Youngberg Hill, as well as winemakers I met for the first time, and I plan to talk about those experiences later on. But based on my leanings during the conference, and conversations with the winemakers, let me summarize my realizations about Oregon wines.

One important idea to keep in mind – when it comes to wine, Oregon is not just a Willamette Valley, and Oregon is not just Pinot Noir. Yes, winemaking in Willamette Valley got its initial boost in the early 1970s when winemakers from California started moving up north in search of locations to grow cool-climate Pinot Noir, hoping that cooler weather will push vines to produce less fruit of a higher quality. Considering the quality of the Oregon Pinot Noir, this plan definitely worked – however, as we were visiting the McMinnville area of Oregon, the temperatures during the day were pushing 95F, which is not the idea of a cool climate of course. Leaving that aside, yes, the Pinot Noir is a king of Willamette Valley, but we shouldn’t discount Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, and many, many other grape varieties successfully growing around the state. But as I spent all of my time in the McMinnville area, let me share with you my observations for this Pinot Kingdom.

Pinot Noir is a King, but Chardonnay is a Queen.

Not letting Burgundian parallels stop at the Pinot Noir only, Oregon producers now fully embrace Chardonnay. And this Chardonnay is stunning. I tasted lots of Chardonnays during the three days, and I don’t think I had a single one I didn’t like. And the best Chardonnays were showing purely Burgundian, with vanilla, apples, and honey, my absolute favorite Chardonnay profile.

It’s all about the rocks.

Rocks. Seemingly nutrient-devoid soils. You just need to see this land to simply ask yourself – how is that even possible? The vine needs so much strength to reach the nutrients through the rocks and basalt – no wonder Steve Lutz at Lenné was ready to give up on his work as the vines couldn’t establish year over year. You need lots of patience. And you need to believe that one day, the vine will fully establish, and the fruit will be worth it. And it does.

Clones Rule!

It is the clonal game here in the Pinot Kingdom. Le Cadeau grows 18 different clones of Pinot Noir, all of which are used in the production of the wines. At Utopia, there are 12 clones of Pinot Noir growing there, and one of the Utopia Pinot Noir wines uses all 12 clones. The same Utopia is growing 3 clones of Chardonnay, all 3 are used in the estate wines.

The grape juice is clear

I don’t know how much of the trend is this, but as you know, the juice of most of the red grapes is clear – and thus you can produce white wines from the red fruit, which many of the producers already do quite successfully. Will this become a big deal? Maybe. Either way, creativity is always great.

The bubbles are everywhere

Almost everyone we talked to produces already sparkling wines. Whatever way it is done – either by harvesting some of the grapes earlier to preserve acidity, or growing the grapes specifically for the sparkling wines, but the sparkling wines make perfect sense as been based on the same Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The bottling is easily done with the mobile bottling line, so adding bubbles to the repertoire is easy and makes sense, especially as an important addition to the wine club inventories.

Oh yes, the wine clubs!

The wine clubs are the key model. While it is great to have nationwide distribution and demand, selling directly to consumers is a lot less involved, and offers much better margins. You don’t have to deal with the three-tier system, you don’t need to deal with extensive marketing – just create a loyal following, make sure members are happy, interested, and get the royal treatment, and you can achieve your financial goals right there and then.

Don’t hope for Rosé

While it seems that producing Rosé is a no-brainer, and it theoretically makes as much sense as sparkling wines in terms of extending the offerings, it doesn’t make much economic sense. When you harvest grapes for the sparkling wines, you are either using the fruit which will never ripen enough to go into the estate wines, or you will do a first pass collecting fruit for the sparkling wines and thus directing all the strength of the vines to the remaining grapes, making your estate wines even better. To make good Rosé, you need to use exactly the same fruit as you would use for the estate wines – only you can’t charge for Rosé as much as you can charge for the estate wines. So yes, while it sounds fashionable and proper to us, consumers, it doesn’t make much business sense.

The view from Lenné vineyards

This is where I can stop this little summary. The rest of this story is really in the wines, delicious wines I had an opportunity to taste. There will be updates to the stories of Passion and Pinot, and there will be new conversations to share. Until then – cheers!

  1. Williplantsman
    December 13, 2021 at 8:46 pm

    Yes, the Willamette Valley grows wonderful Pinot Noir. But, you mention that Oregon is so much more. Surely you noticed that an Oregon wine was number 18 in the Wine Spectator 100 Best Wines. It was a Syrah. It was from The Rocks AVA in Milton Freewater. Not in the Willamette Valley. You do mention the importance of rocks.

    • December 14, 2021 at 7:19 am

      Yes, I know that Oregon is a lot more than just Pinot Noir, same as New Zealand is more than just Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and Napa Valley is not just Cabernet Sauvignon. During the same trip, I had absolutely stunning Syrah from Troon Vineyard from Applegate Valley. However, today, Pinot Noir still makes the name for Oregon on the world map, and most of the vineyards I visited are focused on Pinot Noir, hence the summary of my impressions was centered on that grape.

  1. December 28, 2021 at 11:10 pm
  2. May 25, 2022 at 11:16 pm

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