Thirty-six years ago in Paris, a wine made in a converted chicken barn turned the wine world upside down.
That wine, a 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Pinot Noir from Oregon placed in the Top 10 at the prestigious Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades. This was a stunning result, and it opened many folks’ eyes to the possibilities for high quality Pinot Noir from Oregon. Now, with well over 400 wineries in the state, Pinot Noir is the king of Oregon wines. With so many wineries to choose from, we’ve selected some of our favorite Oregon Pinot Noirs that carry forward Oregon’s tradition of great wine.
While grapes have been grown in Oregon since the pioneer days of the Oregon Territory in the 1840’s, it was David Lett, the founder of Eyrie Vineyards, who helped to establish the modern winemaking industry in 1966. Armed with little more than an enology degree from UC Davis and a theory that good quality Pinot Noir could be grown in Oregon, the then-25 year old Lett moved up to Oregon with his wife, a dream and 3,000 cuttings. It was a bold move at the time. Lett literally bet his future on red (wine that is).
In 1970, Oregon had a grand total of five bonded wineries, a number that grew to 34 by 1980. Eyrie, along with a handful of others, worked to make Oregon Pinot Noir prominent. Situated in a former chicken barn in the small town of McMinnville, Eyrie doesn’t look like your typical winery. Old barrels, some from the earliest days of the winery continue to be used, and fruit still comes from the Red Hills, near Dundee. Fast forward to 2015, and Jason Lett, David’s son, is now the winemaker. While there may be a lot more wineries in Oregon these days, Eyrie Vineyards is still one of the best. The 2011 Estate Pinot Noir is our current favorite with its characteristic barnyard funk and light cherry notes.
Over in Carlton, Oregon, a quiet town of about 2,000 people, sits Cana’s Feast. Specializing primarily in Italian varietals, winemaker Patrick Taylor crafts everything from Counoise to Primitivo. Taylor also makes one of Oregon’s most interesting liqueurs: a bitter, Italian-stye chinato made from a Nebbiolo base. In spite of the Italian wine focus, Cana’s Feast does an outstanding job with the French Pinot Noir grape, creating a wine with more than a passing nod to the Old World. The 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a mix of Pommard and Dijon clones from Freedom Hill Vineyard; the result is a cellar-worthy wine that will reach its prime in three to five years. Buy a bottle now and enjoy notes of Bing cherry, crushed violet petals, forest floor and cinnamon, then put a second bottle away for a special night in the future.
RAPTOR RIDGE WINERY
The town of Newberg is home to Raptor Ridge Winery, named for its location on a ridge in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Founder and winemaker Scott Shull makes single vineyard Pinot Noirs sourced from some of the best vineyards in the state. The Raptor Ridge 2012 Meredith Mitchell Vineyard is a particular favorite. Exploring Pinot’s more muscular side, with dried plum, blackberry, dark cherry, baking spice, and hint of earthiness, Meredith Mitchell is big enough to stand up to more robust dishes and quite enjoyable on its own. In 2010, Scott and his wife Annie built the tasting room at Raptor Ridge, which looks out over the estate vineyards and has a view of our next winery, Ponzi Vineyards.
Ponzi is another of Oregon’s pioneers of Pinot. Founded by Dick and Nancy Ponzi in 1970, the Ponzi tasting room is an impressive, modernist structure overlooking rolling hills of vineyards. A maker of some of Oregon’s most complex and Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs, the Ponzis were also pioneers in Oregon’s craft brewing movement, opening Bridgeport Brewery, the state’s first craft brewery and the first to brew an authentic pale ale. Ponzi’s Reserve Pinot Noir is one of the finest examples of Pinot Noir anywhere, but our pick is the 2012 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Now made by winemaker Luisa Ponzi, who continues the tradition of quality her parents set, the 2012 showcases flavors of red raspberry, Bing cherry, tobacco, and black pepper along with hints of chocolate and dried pepper. It is both approachable, and complex, and a great companion to salmon dishes and pasta.
RANSOM WINERY AND DISTILLERY
Drive over almost to the Oregon Coast, to a small town with a federal prison and a boarding school for young Scientologists. There, up a logging road and hidden from view, you will find one of Oregon’s hidden gems , Ransom Winery and Distillery. Iconoclastic winemaker and distiller Tad Seestedt works his magic in the quiet hills surrounding the winery, crafting excellent vermouths and whiskies, and recreating lost recipes for gin. With all of the hoopla surrounding his spirits, it is easy to forget that Seestedt is one of Oregon’s leading winemakers.
The Ransom Wine Company’s 2012 Cattrall Vineyard Pinot Noir is an example of Seestedt’s talent. Drawing organically farmed grapes from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, this is a heady wine filled with aromas of raspberries, plums, baking spices, cedar shavings, and a note reminiscent of an old tea chest. Rose petals and a faint hint of bay leaf pair with a certain earthiness and truffle notes. This is a wine built for a special occasion, something to share with a romantic partner over a candlelit dinner.
To explore Oregon Pinot Noir is to experience the reputation for quality that pioneers like the Letts and Ponzis helped to create. Newer wineries, like Cana’s Feast, Raptor Ridge, and Ransom are carrying on that tradition. Use these wines as your starting point to discovering Oregon Pinot Noir and you may find, much as the French did 36 years ago, that these truly are world class wines. Kings of their domain.