While I had an amazing time exploring downtown Portland and eating my way through their big food festival Feast (click links for details), I was even more excited to get out to Oregon's Pinot Noir country, Willamette Valley. Whenever I used to see a Willamette Pinot on the menu, I knew it was a solid order. It had been a while however since I'd had a Willamette Pinot, replacing them for the more elegant, and pricey, French Burgundies while living in Paris. So it came as a bit of a shock as I re-visited one Oregon pinot, and then another, and another (in the name of research of course), and couldn't capture the magic I once remembered. Luckily I had a friend and a few days to dive in deeper to research the matter. Everyone's palate is different so it's impossible to recommend what you'll like, but here's an overview of some of our findings in the Willamette Valley.
We started our tasting at a winery we discovered at Feast. We fell in love with the 2012 Anne Amie Pinot Blanc and decided to pay them a visit. It was still refreshing with yellow plum, lemon curd and ripe pear when we sampled again in the tasting room, and it was all well balanced. I soon learned I could get this little gem at BevMo for around $20. Score. They also were in the midst of an interesting project with winemakers from Napa and Santa Rita Hills. They each produced three single vineyard Pinot Noirs for three years to see the influence of winemaking vs. terroir. We tried the 2010 Cube Project Pinot Noir, and let's just say this may be more interesting than tasty to me right now.
They did have beautiful panoramic views at Anne Amie, making it a nice stop for a picnic.
Carlton Winemaker Studios
I love what they're doing here. They take 9 winemakers at a time. These could be winemakers who work for another vineyard and are toying around with the idea of trying to make their very own wine, but the start up costs are just too great to get out on their own. Enter Carlton Winemaker Studios who allows individual winemakers to create and bottle their wine on site using communal equipment. Lynn Penner-Ash started here and now has her own booming winery which we later visited. In the culinary world this set-up would be the equivalent of starting a food truck before opening your own restaurant. Napa has a similar model.
They have an interesting barrel weathering program here as well where they stack and leave out the wood for 4 years. The rain and elements mellow the flavors and acid allowing the grape's flavor to shine through vs the oak. Andrew Rich is a big name here though not to my taste, but Hamacher is another and their Chardonnay was one of my favorites. The space is nice and also picnic friendly.
Ken Wright Cellars
Ken Wright is just down the street from Carlton Winemaker Studios in tiny Carlton. They're in a cute converted train station. They produce about 18,000 cases using all oak, no stainless. They season their barrels in a salt and hot water treatment to remove the green taste. It was here that we were finally catching on that these Pinots need to be cellared, so what we were tasting was bigger, tighter, more tannic wines - not always enjoyable right off the bat, especially without food.
If you buy at Ken Wright, you better really like the wine because the minimum order is half a case. We made no purchase, though I did enjoy the 2010 Canary Hill Pinot Noir, probably because it was the oldest wine we tasted.
We had an appointment right when the doors opened at 11am at Beaux Freres, thinking a French name couldn't lead us astray. They're a small winery with 23 acres planted in the late 80's, producing about 2,000 cases. We were immediately greeted by a band of mismatched dogs who didn't leave our sides during the entire tasting, even sitting on our feet. Harvest was in full swing and the winemaker indulged us with fresh picked grapes (wonderful) as we tasted the latest in bottle.
We started to get a good grip on the warmer and cooler vintages and what they did to the wine. For instance, 2012 was a warmer year so you get more fruit and weight whereas 2011 was cooler and wet, making for a lighter wine. It was here we were allowed to speak about some of our issues with the wine being a bit thin for our liking. CA can ruin anyone's taste buds with their big fruit bomb wines, but many of the Willamette Pinots we found too light with little finish. We did go on to find bigger bodied wines, but surprisingly, most of the "better" or even drinkable wines started at around $60, which I thought was too high for what we were getting. I'm hoping with cellar patience, some of the bigger wines will open to reveal a more balanced and enjoyable wine. I did buy the 2012 Gran Moraine Pinot Noir from Beaux Freres which they just make available for sale on site since they only produce 200 cases. Call me in 15 years to hear how it's drinking.
Penner - Ash Wine Cellars
As I mentioned earlier, Lynn Penner-Ash started at Carlton Winemaker Studios but has since gone on to open her own winery. The location and building are spectacular, as we shockingly also found at most places in the area. While they all are relatively new, we didn't see any shacks or trailers like one of my favorite spots in Napa. Most were sleekly designed and quite modern. We were also happy to see a lot of energy efficient users with solar panels throughout the region.
Penner-Ash uses the gravity-flow system and as the name suggests, they drop the grapes and juice from place to place without ever lifting them, thus disrupting the grapes as little as possible. I enjoyed their 2012 (warmer year) Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir. It's tasting pretty nice now, but could also stand a few more years of aging.
Bergstrom is a family fun winery with the parents living on the property and the son serving as the winemaker. All of their wines are single vineyard vs using grapes from multiple plots of land in various locations. Once again I liked the 2012 Pinot, Le Pre Du Col Vineyard. This area in the vineyard produces a distinct woodsy flavor of mushrooms and Asian spices coupled with a strong floral component. Bergstrom's tasting notes are helpful because they also give you food pairings. I'm going to look forward to pairing the 2012 Le Pre Du Col with lamb ragu or beef stew.
We also sampled Soter at Feast and were quite impressed. That good feeling continued as we got out of the car at the vineyard and were greeted in the driveway by an enthusiastic employee bearing gifts of glasses of Rose wine. We sipped and wandered and then sat down for a formal tasting. We sampled 3 Pinot Noirs, ending with a Brut Rose produced using the traditional methode champenoise which was a refreshing way to finish. Soter holds wine maker dinners regularly on their property ,which seems like a must do on a return visit.
This large and beautiful winery is notable for its high Parker scores on their Pinots, as well as beating out famed French vineyard, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, in a blind tasting of 3 wines, coming in first, second and third with the 1998 and 1999 vintages, and first and second with the 2000 vintage. Naturally none of those wine were available for tasting. The 2010 Serene Pinot Noir from Yamhill is showing well now, and luckily available at a boutique wine shop in LA right now for $45.
Domaine Drouhin was one of my favorites because they have a winemaker who produces wine for them in Willamette, as well as in Burgundy, so you're able to taste and buy wines from both countries in one location. Willamette is the same latitude as Beaune, France, hence the Pinot love in both locations. The pinot noir grape is one of the most sensitive with thin skin so it needs a temperate climate, which Oregon and France provide. I refrained from buying any more French wine since my cellar is stocked, but instead took home the beautiful 2011 (yes I switched it up) Laurene produced from the top 90 barrels on the estate. It's well balanced with baked fig and clove and great mouth feel. I'll attempt to wait 5-10 years before opening this one.
White Rose Estate
Drouhin recommended a visit to their neighbor White Rose and we're glad we stopped. Neal Hulkower is working the windowless tasting room and comes packed with much wine knowledge and several wine papers under his belt including a debate on whether to decant or not. You have to read it to find out like we did. He was full of wine quotes like, "date the 12's but marry the 11's." Guess that's why I'm not married! White Rose only produces Pinot Noir and they do so in a neo-classical way, focusing on whole cluster fermentation.
Ponzi & Argyle Winery
Both tasting rooms are in downtown Dundee and you may just want to pick 1 to visit if you want to get back out to the vines. At Ponzi you can order a cheese plate while you sample Ponzi and Hamacher wines and you can even pick up a souvenir for yourself and friends at home.
Argyle is in a pretty old house with a range of wines including sparkling, Riesling, Chardonnay and of course Pinot Noir.
Torri Mor had one of the most modest tasting rooms, but I liked the serene Japanese vibe. They produce 7,000 cases with many Pinot Noirs, but I may have hit PN saturation at this point so I enjoyed their non-PN selections. Their 2013 Pinot Blanc is easy drinking with fresh flowers and crisp pear notes. I also really liked their 2010 Syrah Port. It's fortified with brandy distilled Pinot Noir and then aged. A great way to end a meal or evening.
Alexana was a late addition and final stop, but one of our favorites. Once again, it was a stunning setting with crisp modern lines and beautiful views. Then there was the wine. They have 80 acres, producing 8,000 cases. Varietals include Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and all were solid across the board.
Archery Summit & Adelsheim
Other stops included Archery Summit producing Pinots using gravity flow, as well as Adelsheim, who was one of Oregon's founding wineries.
While we nervous going in to Willamette Valley, we did have a great education on the characteristics and age-ability of their Pinot Noirs. I still love the riper, rounder fruit from California's Russian River Valley, and if I'm going to shell out the bucks, I'd rather do it for a nice French Burgundy. I will say I'm anxious to revisit my 2012 Willamette Pinots when the time is right, and who knows, in a few more years, I may also be a fan of the 2011's.
Next up, where to eat in Willamette Valley between all of that wine drinking.