The 5 Most Notable Pinot Noirs of Oregon’s Willamette Valley
Oregon’s Willamette Valley, as wine goes, is new. The first serious plantings were in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the Pinot Noir promised land of Burgundy, France they were in the second century AD, if not before.
In several decades, the Willamette has gone from not a wine region to a backwater that maybe had potential, to a global star and one of the finest Pinot sources in the world. An explosion of vineyards and wineries has taken place and the number of truly great wines has multiplied exponentially.
50 years after the first Pinot Noir was planted, it’s time to take stock. Before diving into what should be an infuriating list for anyone familiar with top Willamette Pinots, some context.
The Willamette Valley
Pronounced ‘Will-AM-ette,’ helpfully demonstrated by the popular expression ‘It’s WillAMette, dammit!,’ the region stretches south from Portland, following the Willamette River’s basin between the Oregon Coast mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east.
This protected environment is ideal for Pinot Noir, with a distinct volcanic soil and a gentle, dry summer.
Its wine story begins with the young David Lett, who came out of UC Davis, the preeminent American viticulture school, and set out for Oregon- against their advice- in the mid-’60s. The success of his Eyrie Vineyard is the reason we’re here today talking about the Willamette.
Over the ensuing years, others followed suit, and the region took shape, with its own distinct stylistic voice given by the land. Buoyed by surprise recognition in a high-profile international Pinot Noir tasting and, a few years later, the decision of a superstar Burgundian to plant a large vineyard, growth continued at a strong pace.
In recent years the region has come of age, with tremendous critical success and marketplace cachet. Further brightening the landscape are many vineyards coming into maturity and reaching their potential, a string of excellent vintages, and growing collective wisdom. Times are good and getting better. Perhaps most satisfying is that the region has remained one of the mostly smaller independent producers, with a strong culture of good land stewardship and sustainability.
Given all this, how does one go about selecting the 5 most notable Pinots from such an embarrassment of riches? It’s a fool’s errand. I know just the fool to do it.
I thought about what would make a wine important in the context of this region, still new and alive with change and progress. There are a few things that make good criteria for placing a wine on a list of notable achievements:
- Consistently high quality
- A distinctive style, showcasing its terroir and conjuring a sense of place
- Outstanding complexity and aging potential
- A prominent or interesting place in the landscape- in terms of the region’s history, its present place and where its future may be.
For many obsessives, these are the things that get us excited. Wines that not only taste great but speak to us of where they came from, or who made them, of a region’s history or its future: those are real treasures.
These are totally subjective criteria. They and the wines selected here can and should be debated and picked apart. Every good wine discussion and every Top 5 list of anything should be argued just the way the record-store nerds in the film High Fidelity fight over the all-time top 5 Side One, Track one songs.
The Eyrie Vineyards, ‘Original Vines,’ Dundee Hills
David Lett’s trailblazing Eyrie Vineyards remains at the top of the heap. The Original Vines bottling is made exclusively from that first vineyard planted in 1966. The 1975 vintage from the South Block of this vineyard is the one that shocked the world in the Gault Millau French Wine Olympiad, instantly putting Oregon on the world stage. But the stature of this wine isn’t just from its first-man-on-the-moon significance. It remains one of the region’s greatest wines, year after year, and the exceptional complexity of decades-old bottles is the surest proof of Willamette’s potential we have.
Big Table Farm, Pinot Noir Willamette Valley
Brian Marcy and Clare Carver have such an interesting, and so very Oregon thing going on it seems necessary to include them. Brian held winemaking jobs at a string of elite California wineries, and in 2006 he and his wife, artist Clare Carver, bought some land in Willamette and started a farm. They grow and raise their own food, including fruits and vegetables, pigs, cows, chickens and bees for honey- and from a number of nearby vineyards, make some of the most exciting Pinots in Oregon. They are a tiny producer but instantly made a big impact.
They live and breathe a sustainable and authentic relationship with the land, and that same philosophy holds with their wines- they are pure, clean, expressive and dead true to the land they come from.
Shea Wine Cellars, Shea Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton
When Dick and Dierdre Shea planted this vineyard in the late ‘80’s and started selling the fruit, their winemaker customers used it as one component of a blended wine. But in 1993 a soon-to-be-famous winemaker named Ken Wright thought the vineyard was special and made a single-vineyard bottling. The result was a critically-acclaimed wine and a stampede of requests to buy fruit from the Sheas.
Since then, reputations have been made time and again from the Sheas’ fruit, as everyone who bought from this vineyard ended up with an extraordinary wine. Shea became the most famous single vineyard in Oregon, and it remains so today for the wines’ dense, muscular style.
The Sheas still sell most of their fruit to their superstar customers, but they now keep a small amount for themselves, and it’s a great showcase of this special terroir.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Pinot Noir DDO, Dundee Hills
In the early ‘80s Robert Drouhin, head of his family’s century-old maison in Burgundy, gave the region its next leap forward. Stunned by that Eyrie wine’s success, he took a serious look at Oregon. He planted a 100-acre estate and sent his talented daughter Veronique to run it.
The mere fact of a venerable Burgundy producer turning its eye to Oregon was a watershed moment, giving a clear signal that there was something big here. And like Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon today continues to produce some of the region’s best wines year after year.
Brick House, Cuvée du Tonnelier, Ribbon Ridge
Doug Tunnel is a native of the region. The wine-loving CBS News correspondent was inspired by hearing about Domaine Drouhin’s purchase in Oregon and bought 40 acres in 1990. The Willamette’s spirit of sustainability and authenticity is embodied by his farm and his wines.
Tunnel’s new farm was stripped of health from years of conventional farming and synthetic pesticide use. He adopted organic practices and allowed the soil to slowly regain it’s natural biodiversity. He then became one of the region’s pioneers in biodynamic farming, a holistic set of practices going far beyond organics.
Today Brick House produces from this vital soil some of the Valley’s most lively, pure, and gloriously expressive Pinot Noir. These wines are an unadulterated testament to this extraordinary environment.
There are so many treasures in the Willamette, so many great stories, and wines, that much is inevitably left out here. Cristom, Adelsheim, Elk Cove, Belle Pente, St. Innocent, and so many others offer a wealth of special wines unparallelled nearly anywhere in the world. One of America’s greatest wine success stories, the Willamette promises to only get better.
Article by Joseph Quinn @sommelierjoe
Photo Courtesy of Clare Carver @clarecarver of Big Table Farm