By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 23 November 2019
Arriving in Oregon was a shock to the system. I had left Sonoma in California basking in over 40 degrees C, but in Oregon’s Willamette Valley mid-harvest it was wet and cold - barely reaching 15 degrees.
Over fifty years ago in the mid 1960’s David Lett, one of Oregon’s wine pioneers, had made this same trip north from sunny California in search of a cooler climate. He had studied viticulture in California’s UC Davis, but felt it was too warm there to make Pinot Noir with the same elegance and complexity as Burgundy.
He chose Oregon’s wet forested area south of Portland, the Willamette Valley, nestled in the rainshadow of the Cascade mountains and chilled by cool Pacific breezes. Summers are warm and winters cool and wet, but without Washington State’s continental extremes to the north.
Cheap land and volcanic rock soils showed potential for viticulture in this quiet farming backwater: an enchantingly beautiful region with undulating slopes dotted with grain silos, hazelnut orchards and wheatfields.
“My father planted varieties he thought would work, buying vineyards piece by piece, but never planting above 900ft as grapes struggle to ripen”, says Lett’s son Jason, who now runs the family winery, The Eyrie Vineyards [pictured below].
Jason proudly showed me photographs of his father [pictured right] in 1965 with cuttings of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc (which turned out to be Melon de Bourgogne) - but it was Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills that was to prove his father’s triumph.
By 1979 Eyrie’s South Block Pinot Noir shot onto the world stage rated top Pinot Noir in a Gault-Millau tasting competition, attracting the attention of the first Burgundians to invest in Oregon, Robert Drouhin.
“In mid-1980’s Veronique, Robert’s daughter, wanted to work in California, but her father said Oregon was more suited to Pinot Noir”, says David Millman of Domaine Drouhin Oregon. “When her father showed her a photograph of bearded Lett and his friend David Adelsheim, Veronique said she nearly cried - but followed her father’s wishes”.
By 1987 Drouhin had bought the wheat and grass fields above Eyrie’s vineyards in the Dundee Hills and in 1989 built a groundbreaking gravity-fed winery [pictured right] primarily for Pinot Noir. “There was nothing like this anywhere in Oregon; Veronique has made every vintage here since”, says Millman.
Dundee Hills is the heart of Pinot Noir country in Willamette Valley; Lett and Adelsheim had the foresight to map this area to prevent people building condos. Now there are burgeoning AVAs from Yamhill Carlton and Ribbon Ridge to southerly Eola-Amity Hills. It is a land of small artisan wineries, 80% producing less than 5000 cases, with a collaborative spirit and camaraderie rarely seen elsewhere.
“The Oregonians are so welcoming - when the Drouhins recently bought land in Eola-Amity Hills, people said that they were relieved ‘locals’ had bought it”, says Millman.
Visiting Oregon today is still a magic experience with its diverse wine culture. Portland has a burgeoning number of urban wineries, many growers follow organic and biodynamic viticulture, winemakers experiment with amphorae, concrete eggs and ‘natural’ winemaking is on trend.
I wondered how long the magic of this sleepy backwater would last. “It is a region in transition”, agreed Bree Stock MW of Oregon Wine. Oregon now has 793 wineries, with 44 new wineries in 2017 alone. Plantings have increased since 2016 by 17% to 13,610 hectares.
“The seven biggest wineries are still owned by locals, but there has been an influx of outside investors”, says Stock. “We now have 12 French-owned wineries”. Prominent Burgundians attracted to prime Pinot Noir country include Jean Meo-Camuzet with Nicolas-Jay, Louis Jadot with Resonance, Dominique Lafon working at Lingua Franca, Louis Liger Belair at Rose & Crown and Bouchard (owned by Henriot) have bought up Beaux Freres.
“It is like a breath of fresh air here for Burgundians”, says Millman. “There are no rules and restrictions, but with a similar terroir focus articulating the soil, although soils are very different in Oregon”.
With land prices low, the Californians don’t want to miss out on good Pinot Noir country. Some just want an Oregon label as it is trendy, others like Francis Ford Coppola, Jackson Family, Foley and Evening Land have bought vineyards [Evening Land's Seven Springs Vineyard pictured above & right] – and from South Africa, the Hamilton Russells have a small project.
“Oregon is expensive to farm, more labour intensive with yields lower than California”, says Stock. Plantings in southerly Eola-Amity Hills and Umpqua valley, where warmer climate gives high yields and vineyards can be machine-harvested, have expanded – useful too for blending in cool wet vintages like 2010 and 2011.
Pinot Noir is Oregon’s dominant grape with 60% of plantings – with a distinct elegant style with less tannin and acid than in Burgundy – but not high in alcohol. “Burgundy is our point of reference”, says Kelley Fox [pictured right], a leading biodynamic winemaker who trained under ‘The Master’, David Lett, now with her own label.
Pinot Gris and Riesling are Oregon’s most popular whites. Chardonnay has had a chequered history, now improved and more complex with Burgundian Dijon clone instead of high-acid high yielding UC Davis clone – the best made by Bergstrom [pictured right], Domaine Drouhin and Evening Land.
ROSEROCK CHARDONNAY 2016 Domaine Drouhin ***STAR BUY***
£29 Berry Bros & Rudd
From Drouhin’s spectacular vineyards in Eola-Amity; peach and pear aromas, minerally notes, lush mouthfeel and texture
OLD STONES CHARDONNAY 2017 Bergstrom
£29 The Wine Society
From a blend of Willamette vineyards; citrus pith, succulent, bright acid, lovely textural feel
SEVEN SPRINGS LA SOURCE CHARDONNAY 2014 Evening Land
£73 Indigo Wine
From Evening Land’s vineyard in Eola-Amity; struck match aroma, intense citrus fruits, minerally with textural mouthfeel.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY PINOT NOIR 2015 Eyrie Vineyards ***STAR BUY***
£35 www.savageselection.co.uk; www.justerinis.com
Wild berry aromas, fresh, savoury, lovely complexity, balanced acid; great wine to showcase Oregon.
DUNDEE HILLS PINOT NOIR 2016 Domaine Drouhin ***STAR BUY***
Candied dark cherry & plum fruit, light spice, soft rounded tannins
WILLAMETTE VALLEY PINOT NOIR 2016 Nicolas Jay
Dark cherry fruit, rich, intense with soft approachable silky tannins
MARESH PINOT NOIR 2018 Kelley Fox ***STAR BUY***
£54 www.lescaves.co.uk; www.exelwines.co.uk
Beautifully perfumed, spicy, ripe dense fruit, soft tannins – such elegance.
CUMBERLAND RESERVE PINOT NOIR 2016 Bergstrom
£48 Roberson Wines
Josh Bergstrom calls this his ‘business card wine’: so fresh, aromatic, earthy spicy notes, good acidity, soft smooth tannins.
Join Rose’s Burgundy v Jura with French Charcuterie Tasting in Edinburgh on 11 December £60 www.rosemurraybrown.com