Wine of the Week: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

While pinot noir grapes are grown all around the world, including France, Chile and New Zealand, there is something special about the wines from the state that has recently defined domestic pinot noir: Oregon.

Oregon has long been known for its spectacular scenery and fertile soils, but it hasn’t been until the early 1980s or so that the state began to achieve international recognition as a major wine-producing region. Willamette Valley, roughly an hour’s drive south of Portland, is on the map as one of the best regions in the country for producing world-class pinot noir wines that have a style all their own.

Blessed with a diversity of soil composition (volcanic, sedimentary, and sandstone and shale) and a temperate climate, the Willamette Valley is about as ideal a place to grow the finicky pinot noir grape as anywhere in the world. The warm days and cool nights, thanks to cooling maritime influences, contribute to even ripening, intense fruit characteristics and bright acidity. In general, they are a touch bolder than their French cousins and a bit rounder than the pinot noir revolution going on Down Under in Australia.

Oregon pinot noirs typically display flavors of wild strawberry, dark cherry, graphite, tea and bramble. Stony minerality is another hallmark feature.

Coeur de Terre (Heart of the Earth) Vineyard is a family-owned winery located a bit off of the beaten path in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range. Nestled in a protective valley, the surrounding mountains and hills provide just the right amount of heat to allow for a slow and gentle ripening of the fruit while protecting the vineyard from harsh coastal winds. Husband and wife Scott Neal (winemaker) and Lisa Neal (vineyard and winery operations) are dedicated to using only organic farming techniques that they feel contribute to the unique characteristics expressed in their wines, like their 2017 Coeur de Terre Vineyard Oregon Pinot Noir from McMinnville. It displays red fruit and dark cherry characters, both in the nose and on the palate. Wild cherry and juicy raspberry flavors intermingle with hints of spice and minerals on the pretty finish. $26

Listening to St. Innocent’s winemaker/owner Mark Vlossak is like listening to a human encyclopedia on the soil composition of the Eola-Amity Hills region of Willamette Valley. His passion for making wines that taste of a place is infectious, and you can literally taste each nuance of earthy raspberry, black cherry and strawberry flavors in the 2016 St. Innocent Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir. As the wine opens, the flavors expand and find their balance. The pretty finish features fine-grained tannins that support a touch of baking spices and mineral undertones. $38

If you’re looking to splurge, I can’t think of few indulgences from the Willamette Valley bigger than the 2017 Ken Wright Cellars Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir. Hailing from the most acclaimed vineyard site in the valley, this pinot noir is an excellent example of how great Oregon pinot can be. Ripe, lush black cherries, blackberries and blueberries jump out of this dark ruby red wine. In the mouth, layers upon layers of jammy blackberries are accented by notes of sweet plum and spice. Its structure is well focused and the smooth tannins lend themselves to a long, silky finish. I would try this with roasted quail or pheasant. $60

In Willamette Valley, it’s all about location, location, location, and the Zena Crown Vineyard in the Eola-Amity appellation is the epitome of the adage. Winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash has been lucky enough to take some of the best grapes from this consistently cool climate and well-drained volcanic soil for her 2018 Penner-Ash Zena Crown Pinot Noir. The pretty bouquet sports scents of red cherry and bright red berry. Flavors of cherry, baking spices and clove feel silky smooth in the mouth. A hint of cocoa on the back of the palate really adds a delightful note to the beautiful, lush finish. $65

Note: As a general rule of thumb, I don’t recommend decanting pinot noir wines. In most cases, just a few minutes of time in the glass will bring these wines up to their full potential.

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