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Oregon – Pinot Noir and Life Beyond

Published:  31 July, 2017

Having just returned from Oregon Pinot Camp 2017, passionate pinot-phile Doug Wregg of artisan importer Les Caves de Pyrene reports on a region where quality is a driving passion

Oregon is home to a highly unified, friendly and supportive producer network – I would go further – in my experience, Oregon presents the most united front of any wine country or region in the world. Oregon has ground rules and exacting standards, set up clearly with the objective of producing quality wine. The producers, who by and large are extremely articulate, share the same objectives. This communality stems originally from the pioneers themselves and their necessarily collaborative approach, one based on mutual respect, admiration and friendship.

The unity also derives from a combination of Oregon’s unique geography, history and culture. The vast majority of its vineyards are located in the Willamette Valley, which has become closely associated with a single grape variety - Pinot Noir. Great Pinot Noir, after all, may only be grown and made in certain places, and the relatively cool climate of Willamette supports this endeavour. All of which has helped immensely with the critical perception of Oregon as a region producing world-class wines.

Otherwise, the Oregon wine trade has benefited from far-sighted planning and decision-making. Land use laws passed in 1973 limited residential building in agricultural zones, raising the value of farmland dramatically and encouraging vineyards to be planted. The LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) programme was set up, as a result of which 47% of Oregon’s vineyards are now certified sustainable – more than any other state in the US – and a large number of them are farmed biodynamically. Biodiversity, energy reduction, water management, workers’ health and safety and improving the environment for local communities are part of the overarching philosophy here. 

The pioneering families and personalities did a great deal to lay the foundations for the modern Oregon wine industry. Richard Sommer, Charles Coury, David Lett and Dick Erath travelled widely, brought cuttings, planted vines and made wines, and their innovation and their eventual success persuaded others to invest their money and expertise in the region.

In 1970 there was one vinifera winery in Oregon and fewer than 100 acres of vines planted. By 2010, there were 418 wineries with over 20,300 acres planted in 848 vineyards. Now there are 702 wineries with 1,052 vineyards. From such little grape seeds, a considerable wine industry has developed. Wine-related tourism alone accounts for $207.5 million in revenue to the economy.

Oregon winemakers pioneered the now accepted practice of matching site, climate, variety and clone, and developed systems of vertical trellising and canopy management appropriate to the climate. In fact, one notices a commonality of practice (both in farming and winemaking) which reflects this sense of shared purpose. However, it might be argued that a by-product of working according to received wisdom and shared practices is that producers stop thinking outside the box and cease to experiment.

This is most obvious in the winemaking where, for better or worse, the Pinots have become, to a certain extent, stylised. The notion of terroir is enthusiastically talked up; one hears a lot in Oregon about different soil types and microclimatic variations, but such variables do not inevitably translate into the final wine. Oregon Pinot Noir is as much about method as it is about place.

Whilst it would be simplistic to characterise these Pinots as homogenous, many of them are certainly made with a premium on power. If this is what Oregon has to offer, and many people love these wines after all for what they are, then so be it. And to be fair, many winemakers are throttling back on the new oak and high extraction.

However, whilst Oregon has the climate and variable soil types to make other noble wines, when 60+ % of the state is planted to a single varietal, and all the events (Pinot Camp; IPNC) are based on a celebration of this grape, then growers and winemakers are always going to focus on the bread-and-butter business.

Having said all that, there are an increasing number of growers doing it for themselves and carving an identity out of other grape varieties or unusual styles. Oregon is soon to host its own natural wine fair to celebrate aspects of artisan diversity and singularity.

Chad Stock, for example, from the Craft Wine Company, makes around thirty (!) experimental blends in his winery in Carlton. He sources grapes from diverse terroirs and different climates – from the Rogue and Applegate Valleys on the border of California to the Columbia Gorge next to Washington State. Chad – and others – are making wines from unusual grapes and offbeat blends (Trousseau, Mondeuse, Savagnin rose…), vinifying in eggs, or in amphorae, or in chestnut barrels, making whites with skin contact, using flor and oxidative techniques.

Several growers are making pet nats (sparkling wines which undergo a single fermentation and made without additions). There is one tiny crowd-funded winery entirely devoted to different expressions of Chardonnay, others that focus exclusively on aromatic varietals such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer & Muscat (Ovum Wines), and another (Analemma) that concentrates on Italian grapes.

Meanwhile, some of the more independent vignerons make Pinots that challenge the Oregon orthodoxies – Kelley Fox, for example, makes beautifully aromatic natural-ferment wines from whole-cluster grapes (very unusual in Oregon) and matures them in used barrels. The elevated expression of the personalities of the vineyards is key as far as she is concerned; the influence of the vigneron must not be felt in the wine.

Pioneering spirit, trial and error, unity of purpose, political will, friendship, strong personalities, targeted marketing initiatives, good planning and good luck – all these allied to Oregon’s natural advantages of cool climate and unique terroir have brought the wine industry to the point where it is today. To be aligned with Pinot Noir is to take on the world’s most challenging grape. It is a noble variety and a noble task, which requires both a certain humility and the application of the most rigorous standards. What excites me, nevertheless, is the “other”. The grape-and-terroirs explorers. And those who spend time in the vineyard to fully understand their vines, and then act as midwives to their wines, rather than winemakers. A wine culture is fully-formed when it is secure enough not to measure itself against other wine cultures, and, secondly to accept that individual vignerons who are pushing the boundaries creatively, are in fact adding immeasurably to the rich diversity of the overall wine culture.

Snapshot of Oregon

Oregon is a large state with seven major growing regions and 18 approved American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), from the oldest, Willamette Valley, established in 1983 to the youngest – The Rocks District of Milton Freewater (2015). Oregon is 5th in terms of overall wine production in the US, but third now in the number of wineries (just over 700). Pinot Noir is, by some margin, the most important variety in the Willamette Valley (where there are six sub-AVAs), although there are also plantings in the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys, Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley. Approximately 82% of the state’s Pinot is produced in the Willamette Valley and 62.3% of the entire state is planted to this grape. There are various physiological (climatic), cultural/historical and commercial reasons for the primacy of this variety in this region.

Celebrating Pinot Noir

Oregon Pinot Camp has been organised annually since 2000. Approximately 250 members of the wine trade from the US – plus a smaller international delegation - are invited to Oregon by the Pinot Camp (a group of some 50 leading wineries) to learn about local viticulture, winemaking techniques, and, in particular, Oregon’s predilection for the Pinot Noir grape.