Tuesday, September 2, 2003


Pinot noir is a temptress, no matter its origin. It teases you with promise but frequently disappoints in performance. For every sumptuous,

multilayered wine made from this grape, 10 or more will taste either thin and tart or fat and blowsy. So why bother with it? Because pinot noir can be the most sensuous wine in the world.

The best examples of this varietal feel seductively silky when you drink them. They display an opulent perfume and have richly nuanced, complex flavors. They’re a hedonist’s delight.

As most wine lovers know, the best in this context usually means Burgundy. The wines there are extremely expensive and notoriously inconsistent, but the top examples set a worldwide standard.

American producers have been less successful with pinot noir than with cabernet or chardonnay. The grape is difficult to grow, the wine even more difficult to make. Just a few regions have demonstrated reliability.

Among these, eastern Oregon, particularly the Willamette Valley, ranks at the top. Most California appellations are simply too hot for pinot, and many top-scoring Golden State versions tend to taste brawny rather than voluptuous. The climate in eastern Oregon, in contrast, is appropriately moderate. If the autumn rains hold off, the results can be impressive indeed.

Oregon pinot noir achieved initial renown back in the 1980s by being crafted deliberately in a Burgundian style, with an emphasis on earthiness and structure, sometimes at the expense of fruit. Though some wines still are fashioned this way, many today are more lush, their complexity coming as much from the interplay of red and black fruit flavors as from any earthy barnyard notes.

Still, good Oregon pinots rarely seem muscular like so many of their California counterparts. They strike a balance between ripeness and elegance, and as a result, they have an appeal all their own.

Part of the explanation for the emergence of an Oregon identity for pinot noir is maturity — for vintners as well as vineyards. As the vines have aged, the winemakers have learned both how to care for them better and how to craft the resulting wines better. With experience comes wisdom. A record of successful vintages means no one needs slavishly follow foreign models.

In addition, the use of new clones, many coming from the University of Dijon in Burgundy, allows for a greater range of complexity in today’s wines. These clones tend to ripen slightly earlier than those originally planted back in the 1960s and 1970s (most of which came from California). While their influence may be even more dramatic with chardonnay, they have improved pinot noir by giving the vintners more tools with which to work.

A final factor is luck, the good fortune of having five strong vintages (1998-2002) in a row. Couple that with an expansion in vineyard planting, and Oregon is awash in good wine.

For consumers, particularly those of us here in the East, the only drawbacks are availability and price. Most of the top Oregon pinots are made in small volume, and not all that much of that volume gets to us. Most good wines also cost upward of $30 a bottle. That admittedly is not all that much when compared to grand cru Burgundy, but then Oregon is still an up-and-comer, not yet an established star.

Still, judging from a recent trip to Oregon as well as a series of tastings back home, the wines are more tempting than ever before, with few outright disappointments and few stylistic discrepancies. My favorites among those available in the Washington area are identified below. They are listed in a rough order of preference, with preference including factors of cost as well as inherent quality.

Cristom Reserve, Willamette Valley, 2000 ($45). Winemaker Steve Doerner crafts some of the finest New World pinot noirs at Cristom Vineyards in the Eola Hills, north of Salem. Complex and beautifully balanced, they impress because of grace and finesse more than weight or power. That said, there is nothing wimpy in this “Reserve,” the best young wine I tasted in Oregon. Wonderfully smooth, it is delicious now but will only improve with time in the bottle. (Cristom’s less expensive 2000 Mount Jefferson cuvee is also well worth trying)

Panther Creek Winemaker’s Cuvee, Oregon, 2001 ($37). Of all the 2001 Panther Creek pinots, this one impressed the most. The single vineyard offerings taste richer, but they’re also heavier and more cumbersome. This blended wine is lithe and elegant, and while it may not age as well as its more exclusive (and expensive) siblings, it certainly is delicious right now. (For cellaring purposes, try the Bednarik or Shea vineyard bottlings.)

A to Z, Hatcher Wineworks, Willamette Valley, 2001 ($24). This is a top-notch wine, made entirely with purchased grapes from the surplus on the market. A strong vintage, coupled with a bevy of recent plantings, means that some of that fruit is actually superior to what was being used in many of the state’s most prestigious bottlings a few years ago. Bill Hatcher, formerly the manager at Domaine Drouhin, evidently knows what he needs. His wine is marked by bright fruit flavors, a spicy finish and an appealingly firm structure.

Domaine Drouhin “Laurene,” Willamette Valley, 1999 ($53). Perhaps Oregon’s most prestigious wine, this cellar selection from the Oregon outpost of the well-respected Burgundy house Domaine Drouhin tastes leaner and tighter than the other wines I am recommending. Within its firm structure, however, lies a core of succulent flavor. The wine needs time for that core to express itself fully, so buy it only if you have the requisite patience. That patience will be rewarded.

Patricia Green Cellars, Yamhill County, 2000 ($27). Smooth and silky, with expressive fruit flavors and a lingering finish, this wine comes from a small producer in the Dundee Hills. It is extremely well-crafted, as its purity of flavor suggests meticulous selection in both vineyard and winery.

Argyle, Willamette Valley, 2001 ($18). A bargain for the category, this pinot displays plenty of ripe fruit set against a spicy backdrop. It outperforms many others costing twice as much and so provides a very good introduction to Oregon pinot for folks unfamiliar with this type of wine.

Bethel Heights Estate Grown, Willamette Valley, 2001 ($27). Firm but expressive, with predominantly black fruit flavors, lots of spice and a long finish.

Hamacher Willamette Valley 1999 ($33). Fine depth and length. This wine is very fruit-driven so perhaps lacks a bit of complexity when compared to the very best in the state.

Sokol Blosser, Willamette Valley, 2000 ($33). Quite deep and rich, though still seductive and silky on the palate.

Willamette Vineyards “Whole Cluster,” Oregon, 2000 ($19). A good value, graceful, supple and fairly light in body.

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