Oregon is widely thought to be expert at making Pinot Noir, but so far the evidence is not at all conclusive. The state wine industry, though promising, is still in its infancy.
The talk about Oregon really began with the 1985 vintage, an unusually warm year for Oregon that produced wines with a sap and richness not often found in that chilly location.
On the basis of that vintage, and with California continuing to struggle to find its way with the grape, Oregon became considered the leader in making Pinot Noir. That is not a title that has rested unchallenged, though.
Oregon is not always the easiest place to grow grapes. Cool years and a fair amount of rain create challenges for even the most skilled growers and winemakers. But things are looking up. Starting with the 1998 vintage, the state has enjoyed a string of warmer, drier years, and the current crop of Oregon Pinots is widely being hailed as the best yet.
I am not entirely convinced. While it is often claimed that Oregon Pinot Noirs are made in the image of Burgundy, many seem to me to be surprisingly tannic and noticeably acidic, especially in the finish. The best wines overcome those problems primarily through a depth of fruit that keeps the astringency and acidity at bay.
Still--and this is my major complaint with Oregon--only a few wineries achieve the supple, velvety texture that is the hallmark of truly great Pinot Noir. Nevertheless, Oregon does produce a fair number of interesting Pinot Noirs. The style may be less lush than we find in California, but the fruit and focus are all Pinot.
Keep in mind: Pinot Noir is not an easy variety to grow or to make into great wine anywhere. As a result, the good ones, in particular, tend to be rather pricey.
** 1998 Domaine Drouhin "Laurene," Oregon, $50. The Drouhin family, famed vintners from Burgundy, established a beachhead in Oregon in the mid-'80s and have made a series of wines that are richer in style than many of their regional peers. This wine is a tantalizing study of richness derived from ripe grapes and sweet oak combined with the firm fruit acidity we expect from Oregon. With focused black cherry and hints of violet and vanilla in the flavor and a long finish, it has a combination of polish and depth uncommon in Oregon wines.
* 1999 Domaine Drouhin, Oregon, $36. Drouhin's regular bottling tries for the same richness and fruit but comes up a bit short of the "Laurene." Still, for those who find Oregon Pinots a bit too acid and tannic, this wine offers an alternative.
$ 2000 Erath Vineyards, Oregon, $10. This Pinot Noir is based on respectable red cherry fruit and is light and comfortable on the palate. It's not a match for rich roasts, but it might be nice with lighter dishes, such as grilled salmon.
$* 1999 Foris Vineyards Winery, Rogue River, $16. Though not quite as complex as it might be, this affordable wine has ripe cherry fruit with a touch of sweet vanilla and has a supple, open quality that makes it perfect for current drinking.
* 2000 Patricia Green Cellars "Estate," Yamhill County, $26. The Green Pinot Noirs, and there is an armload of them, are very much in the Oregon style despite lacking the gritty tannins that affect wineries such as Archery Summit, Panther Creek and Ken Wright. In this well-balanced wine, Green delivers a temperate mix of ripeness, oak and firmness. There is the bit of Pinot velvet in the texture that you expect but rarely find in Oregon bottlings and a fair dose of ripe cherry fruit at its heart. In terms of Oregon wines, this one is distinctly middle-of-the-road, at a middle-of-the-road price.
1999 Hamacher, Oregon, $38. You will be hearing Eric Hamacher's name a lot. His first wines are sturdy, age-worthy bottlings that may be a bit extreme in their search for greater depth and extract. This one is especially tannic and will need four to six years of aging before it is at its best.
* 1999 Torii Mor Winery "Amelia Rose Cuvee," Yamhill County, $35. This ripe wine has notes of baked cherries and pastry crust in its direct, richly oaked aromas. Though it finishes with fine-grained tannins and late-arriving acids, it never loses its focus on Pinot Noir fruit. Like Hamacher and Patricia Green, Torii Mor is a name to remember for the future.
** 2000 Ken Wright Cellars "Shea Vineyard," Willamette Valley, $46. Ken Wright is a local hero for his Pinot Noirs. He makes several single-vineyard bottlings, all of which share sinewy construction and a tendency to ripeness. This wine is my favorite of the batch I tasted because deep, focused red cherry smells and engaging richness are joined by a supple, velvety texture. Only in the finish do you run into a toughness that would seem to indicate a need for more cellaring.