Oregon Pinot Noir: A Guide to What Makes It So Special

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Pinot Noir: Oregon’s Finest Grape

Over the past half century, Oregon has steadily gained prestige in the wine industry with its heartbreak grape: Pinot Noir. Recognized in the global wine economy by sommeliers and wine spectator rankings alike, Oregon’s Pinot Noir has earned acclaim for its phenolic ripeness and its supple flavor. Yet in the vast viticulture and wine industries, where there is an abundance of competition, what makes Oregon’s pinot noir wine so special?

Distilled to its essence, there are three principal tenets that distinguish Oregon’s grape from competitors: the entrepreneurialism in the area, the wine growing region itself, and the sustained variation among the particular varietal. Read on for a guide to what makes Oregon Pinor Noir so fantastic among the world’s best wines.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit in Oregon

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, three University of California Davis graduates, each independent of the other, established roots Oregon with one aim: to make great wine. With little more than “with 3,000 grape cuttings and a theory,” David Lett planted the first Pinot Noir crop of grapes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley region.

oregon pinot noir vineyard

A year later, he and his wife Diana Lett founded the Eyrie Vineyards. Handcrafted and made with minimal interference, David’s commitment to growing in the region brought renowned Pinot Noir to Oregon for the first time – an exemplar soon to be followed by other wine pioneers.

Alongside David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath also served as the region’s foremost innovators and wine makers. Cultivating nearby land parcels, David Hill put his college thesis to the test, proving grapes’ vitality in cooler climates. Dick Erath turned a garage viticulture experiment into beloved early varietals of Oregon’s Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills.

Together, these men, first among subsequent pioneers, acted without precedent and established a singular truth: by pairing great ambition with science, Pinot Noir grapes would flourish when grown in Oregon, leading to a style and variety perfectly suited to the region.

A Lush Region, Perfect for Pinot Noir Cultivation

Aside from acquired knowledge, intuition, and ambition, what made Oregon’s wine pioneers so successful? The defining features imbued in Oregon’s Pinot Noir are in part accountable to the region itself.

While much of Oregon grows renowned Pinot Noir, the Willamette Valley, Eola-Amity Hills, and Yamhill-Carlton regions contain the highest concentrations of Pinot Noir vineyards. And each of these regions is privy to a special microclimate.

oregon pinot noir vineyard

While the region is grazed by the sun’s harsh rays, the Pacific Ocean’s cooling afternoon breezes abate the sun’s intense heat. Consequently, the wine in these areas experiences a perfect balance of viridity and freshness, without sharp and unpleasant flavor.

In effect, little manipulation and chemical infiltration is needed to turn the grapes of these regions into refined wines. Further blessed by the natural environment, vineyards are given ample opportunity to cultivate unrefined estate wines – beautifully aged wines that have gained Oregon notoriety in the wine industry.

Evolving Variation Through Oregon’s Microclimates

While the pioneering spirits of early wine makers and the conducive microclimate of the region have provided a foundation for Oregon’s Pinot Noir to distinguish itself among competitor regions and countries, the continued variation among Oregon’s wines is what truly makes the product stand out.

New York Times writer Eric Asimov, the Times’s wine critic, recently wrote that, “Recent vintages of Oregon Pinot Noir have been fascinating.” He praises the region’s ripe wines of 2008, the high-toned wines of following years, and the 2011 vintage, but he celebrates Oregon Pinot Noir’s departure from convention.

Asimov further claims, “These sorts of vintage variations are both part of the pleasure of wine and a reminder of what makes it singular. No other beverage is so regularly dependent on forces out of its control. Good wine is above all an agricultural, not industrial product.” Many growers and wine makers of Oregon’s Pinot Noir embrace the forces of nature, rather than manipulate them, creating a singular sensation of restrained style that has made the wines famous.

oregon pinot noir vineyard

The technique is working. An Eola-Amity Hills vineyard, Evening Lands Vineyard, recently secured the number three slot on Wine Spectator’s annual list ranking the world’s top 100 wines. And this winery was not alone; accompanied by four other Oregon Pinot Noirs, the list finally confirmed that Oregon’s Pinot Noir is extraordinary.

Oregon Pinot Noir: Here to Stay

As with all phenomena, it is important to consider why something has garnered acclaim and notoriety. Does a wine growing region gain importance because of its essence, the true quality of the wine? Or does a wine region gain recognition because enough people say that the area and its products are important?

While the dense concentration of Pinot Noir wines in Oregon has amassed a strong following, it’s certain that the precedent established by the region’s wine pioneers, coupled with a unique microclimate, has established a niche wine culture that produces truly exceptional varietals. One thing is for sure — given their superb quality, Oregon’s Pinot Noir is certainly here to stay.

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