While no one would try to assign a date to when vineyards were first planted in Tuscany or Burgundy, Rheinhessen or Bordeaux, it’s a pretty safe assertion that grape-growing in the Willamette Valley began in 1966, when David Lett came from California to Oregon and planted pinot noir vines in the Willamette Valley, specifically in the Red Hills of Dundee. Lett was followed two years later by Dick Erath, who also planted pinor noir in the Red Hills. (Lett had planted pinot noir vines further south, near Corvallis, in 1965, and transplanted them the next year.) Both of the pioneering wineries they launched — Eyrie Vineyard and Erath Vineyards (originally Knudsen-Erath) — thrive today, as well as about 400 more. Willamette Valley, lying between the Oregon Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east, stretches from just north of Portland to south of Eugene and is influenced by Pacific winds that flow through gaps of the coastal mountain ranges. Few of the wineries, mostly family-owned, produce more than 20,000 cases a year, with many releasing numbers well below that, facts that contribute to the general feeling in the region that they’re more authentic and artisanal and less greedy than their counterparts in California. The primary red grape, by far, is pinot noir. Chardonnay was widely planted in the 1960s and ’70s, usually in the wrong sites, and was replaced by pinot gris and riesling, though chardonnay is making something of a comeback, more carefully sited.
In addition to the broad Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), approved by the federal government in 1983, the region encompasses six smaller and more geologically and geographically focused AVAs: Yamhill-Carlton (approved in 2005), Ribbon Ridge (2005), McMinnville (2005), Dundee Hills (2005), Chehalem Mountains (2006) and Eola-Amity Hills (2006), all north of Salem. Of the nine wines considered in this post, seven carry Willamette Valley designations and two more specific AVAs. All display, to greater or lesser degree, an element that to me is a constant and essential feature of Willamette Valley pinot noirs, and that is a vein of deeply rich brambly loaminess that ties the wines to the earth whence they came.
I received these wines as review samples in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of David Lett’s first planting of pinot noir vines, a bold and visionary act that launched an industry.
The grapes for the Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, were drawn 70 percent from eight estate vineyards, with the remaining 30 percent coming from selected vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley. The wine aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 31 percent new. The color is medium ruby with a magenta-mulberry tinge. At first, the impression is of something delicate and ethereal, tissues of nuances; as moments pass, however, the wine takes on weight and character, deepening and broadening its appeal with elements of spiced and macerated black and red cherries and currants and notes of smoke and loam, cloves and sandalwood and some exotic rooty tea. This sense of dimension and detail is shot through with vibrant and fairly tart acidity that keeps the wine lively and alluring, while moderately dense graphite-laced tannins contribute to overall structure. …. percent alcohol. Production was 2,261 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. The winery produced its first vintage in 1978. Winemaker is Dave Paige. Excellent. About $60.
The Broadley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013, Willamette Valley offers a radiant transparent medium ruby hue and shape- shifting scents of underbrush and loam, cranberries and raspberries and hints of black tea, sassafras and cloves. The wine aged nine or 10 months in neutral French oak barrels, meaning that the barrels had been used during enough wine-making cycles that the wood influence is not just minimal but subliminal, a sculpting rather than a dominating influence. This is a lean and lithe (and tasty) pinot noir in which acidity cuts a swathe on the palate and mineral elements build through the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 3,000 cases. I think that this is a terrific pinot noir, and the price makes it irresistible for drinking through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $20, so Buy It by the Case.
The winery was founded in 1982 by Craig and Claudia Broadley. Winemaker is their son, Morgan Broadley.
The Chehalem Ridgecrest Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Ribbon Ridge, brings out the exuberant and forceful aspect of the grape. The wine aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 39 percent new, 39 percent 1-year-old and the rest, uh, older, I guess. The color is dark ruby-mulberry with a lighter magenta rim; this is all loam-infused black and red cherries permeated by cloves and black pepper, touches of sandalwood and lavender and a potent edge of graphite. The wine is very dry, intensely smoky, woodsy and mossy, with a super satiny, supple texture that doesn’t conceal a thoughtful interpretation of pinot noir’s robust and powerful side. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or 2020. Production was 440 cases. First vintage was 1990. Winemaker is Wynne Peterson-Nedry. Excellent. About $50.
The Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, made from organic and biodynamic grapes, displays a brilliant deep ruby hue shifting to mulberry-purple. The wine aged in French oak, 32 percent new barrels for an unspecified amount of time. It’s a very — perhaps even excessively — dark, rooty, loamy and spicy pinot noir that sacrifices nuance and finesse for earthy power, feeling a bit too syrah-like for its own good. A year or two of aging may bring this wine to rights. Production was 2,800 cases. Winemaker was Gilles de Domingo. The winery’s first vintage was 1987. Very Good. About $28.
The Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, spent 11 months in neutral oak barrels, so the focus is on the grape’s purity and intensity, which this wine possesses in spades. The color is dark ruby shading to transparent magenta at the rim; notes of cloves, sandalwood and sassafras permeate elements of black cherries and plums that feel slightly macerated and roasted, while a few moments in the glass bring in hints of loam, mocha, tobacco and tea leaf. This is one of those pinot noirs that so dexterously melds delicacy, elegance and power — luxury married to spareness — that you wish it would take up residence in your mouth forever, though you have to spit it out or swallow eventually. Paradoxically, despite this sensual appeal, the wine is quite dry, fairly bristling with touches of rooty, mossy underbrush and bright acidity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Winemaker was Jesse Lange. The winery’s first vintage was 1987. Excellent. About $35.
Founded in 1974, Ponzi Vineyards is one of Willamette Valley’s stalwart pioneers. Grapes for the Ponzi Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, were drawn from sustainably farmed estate vineyards as well as a number of other sustainable vineyards in the region. The wine aged 11 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Luisa Ponzi. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry-magenta cast; the first impression is of an exotic amalgam of cloves, sandalwood and sassafrass, pomegranate and rhubarb, all supporting high, bright scents of red and black fruit etched with slightly dusty graphite. The wine is fairly substantial on the palate, delivering a sleek, satiny texture that’s almost plush, while quite engaging and animated by clean acidity; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of briers, brambles and underbrush, leading to a finish pretty dense with roots and leather, though the wine is never less than deft and dexterous, but more untamed than elegant. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Production was 8,000 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $40.
Gratifying largess and dimension characterize the Rex Hill Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, though there’s also pinpoint focus on detail that feels chiseled in stone. The color is a beguiling transparent medium to light ruby — nothing extracted here — while the wine practically smolders in the glass in embers of lavender, loam, sandalwood and spiced and macerated red and black cherries and plums; it’s all quite fleshy and meaty, almost feral in its primal dynamic, its piercing elements of briers and brambles and graphite-tinged tannins, yet in that lovely equilibrium of the best pinot noirs, it displays a balancing sense of delicacy and filigree, all this in a wine that aged 14 months in French oak, 28 percent new barrels. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 9,518 cases, so there’s plenty to go around. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Rex Hill’s first release was from the 1983 vintage. Winemaker is Michael Davies. Excellent. About $35.
Let’s say upfront that the Saint Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, is a great pinot noir wine that delivers all the power and elegance, the earthiness and airiness that we expect from Willamette Valley in an excellent year. The color is medium transparent ruby; first come the loam and underbrush, deeply rooted, then more frangible layers of spiced and macerated black and red cherries and currants imbued with notes of moss, lavender and graphite. This is a lovely, lively, lithe and highly structural expression of a grape and vineyard that offers something essentially piney and and briery, as well as a fairly tannic element burnished with dusty graphite. It’s neither dense nor chewy, however, as the presence of tannins often implies, being, instead, dynamic and light on its feet. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 948 cases. Drink now through 2020 to 2022. A delightfully detailed wine worthy of meditation. Winemaker was Mark Vlossak. Exceptional. About $42.
When I read that a pinor noir wine underwent 16 months aging — as it happens in 40 percent new French oak — my heart sinks and the words “uh-oh” form in the thought-cloud above my head. Readers, that’s a lot of wood. However, the Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir 2012, Dundee Hills, managed to absorb that oak influence and emerge superbly sleek, satiny and supple. The color is a radiant, transparent light ruby hue; notes of cloves, sassafras and rhubarb are woven with elements of red cherries and raspberries, briers, moss and loam, the latter earthy qualities burgeoning in nose and mouth as the minutes pass. Despite the sleek and suave texture, this is a wine that offers a rigorously structured character and a demanding finish that seem to require some time to become more balanced and integrated, so try from the end of 2016 or into 2017 through 2021 through ’23. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 800 cases. Excellent potential. About $38.
The Sokol Blosser family planted five acres of grapes in 1971 and produced its first wine in 1977. The second generation operates the winery today, with Alex Sokol Blosser as winemaker.