Fifty years ago this year, David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, noticing the Willamette Valley’s similarity to France’s Burgundy region, planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Oregon valley. A half a century later, Oregon is home to 1,027 vineyards and 676 wineries, and 15,356 acres of the noble varietal.
A group of pioneering Pinot producers gives a strong picture of just how much it has changed and just how diverse it is.
Though it has made many varietals throughout its 44-year history, Adelsheim Vineyard, one of the oldest in the Valley, has focused on its true love of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A leader in the Chehalem Mountains American Viticultural Area, the winery was one of the first to designate a full-time export manager to send Oregon wine out into the world. “We really want the world to know about the high quality of our winemaking and our potential,” said Diana Szymaczak, marketing and communications manager. The winery’s 2012 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir builds on what winemakers have learned through 29 vintages to create a wine both elegant and intense, with layered aromas of red fruit, brown spice and cedar.
The family-run winery Broadley Vineyards, based in Monroe, Oregon, does everything from the philosophy that great land produces great wines. “I love that each year the wines/vintages provide memories for me and my family, like a timeline, both good and bad,” said Morgan Broadley, winemaker and son of the company’s founder. Over the years, the winery has developed a following from wine lovers who enjoy its layered, rich and sometimes decadent Pinot Noir, which once earned as high as a 97 in Wine Spectator. Its 2013 Estate Pinot shows some of the exceptional characteristics of the winery’s site, with red fruit notes and hints of baking spices like cardamom, cinnamon and clove.
Based in Newberg, Oregon, and the first vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Chehalem Wines is a pioneer in making changes to adapt to changing climate conditions. Owner Harry Peterson-Nedry and his head winemaker daughter, Wynne, see the winery as being a catalyst in all areas of winemaking, whether it’s dealing with changing conditions or emphasizing new varietals of Riesling and Chardonnay. ” ‘Over time’ is important to us — we view aging as more and more important, since it adds a fourth dimension to the wines we make,” Peterson-Nedry said. Its 2012 Chehalem Pinot Noir Reserve is a top-of-the-line wine from a top-of-the-line vintage, with lots of dark fruit and flavors of rose hips, tamarind, tobacco, blackberry seed, warm oak and Bing cherry.
Cooper Mountain Vineyards
Cooper Mountain emerged when founder Robert Gross made the transition from conventional farming to organic and biodynamic wine-grape growing in the early 1990s. All of its wines remain certified organic, producing wines free to express the place and time where they were produced. “We farm to increase the natural antioxidant levels of the grapes with the goal of avoiding sulfite additions,” says Barbara Gross, daughter of the vineyard’s founder. Under winemaker Gilles de Domingo, who has been with the Beaverton, Oregon, company since 2004, Cooper Mountain produces its signature wines, including its Life Pinot Noir, with a flavor profile of dark blue fruit, minerals and spices.
Founded by one of the true Oregon Pinot pioneers, Dick Erath, who moved from California to Oregon in 1967, Erath Winery makes the No. 1-selling Pinot Noir in Oregon. “We strive to make pure, clean, fruit-focused wines that showcase the breadth of terroir across Oregon’s many distinct growing regions,” says Ryan Pennington, communications director. Erath’s winemaker Gary Horner, with the company 10 years, shoots for a pure expression of Oregon’s terroir in wines like the winery’s 2012 Prince Hill Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, which has assertive cherry, raspberry, warm vanilla and German chocolate cake notes with just a hint of smoke and is the centerpiece of its founder’s Prince Hill vineyard.
Lange Winery’s winemakers have seen the industry grow from justifying growing grapes in the Willamette Valley to making some of the finest wines in the world. “We craft wines that express terroir, and we do it without the pyrotechnics and heavy-handedness so prevalent in most winemaking these days,” says Jesse Lange, a second-generation family winemaker. Lange has quadrupled its Dundee Hills Estate vineyards over the past decades and its current vintages are beginning to show the fruits of those additions. Its signature wines include its 2014 Pinot Gris Reserve, the first barrel-fermented wine with that varietal, and its 2012 Pinot Noir Lange Estate, its top expression from its Winery Estate property. That wine draws high accolades for its notes of crème brûlée to the plum, and currant.
Ponzi Vineyards, southwest of Portland, is known as much for its highest quality wines as for the hospitality of its tasting room and estate. “Farming our land with the same families for 45 years, it has been able to bring consistency and complexity to our wines,” said Maria Ponzi. The estate created a new, 30,000-square-foot winery in 2008, and a modern tasting room in 2013 — complete with seated tastings, small plates, bocce ball courts, a covered terrace and fire pit. There, visitors can drink Chardonnay (winemaker Luisa Ponzi is a trailblazer) and its 2012 Ponzi Pinot Noir, a benchmark vintage that sources from the oldest vineyards in the valley.
Rex Hill, located in Newberg, Oregon, doesn’t throw grapes in a vintage just because they own them.
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“Everything is done by hand — hand-pruned, handpicked, hand-sorted, and handmade — so we can select from the best of the best of all the vineyards we work with,” says Katie Quinn, marketing manager. “We only make Rex Hill wines in a vintage when we believe they are superlative.” Producers of top-tier Pinot Noir and small quantities of what the company calls “shoot for the moon” Chardonnay, the company believes that sourcing the best grapes from multiple vineyards increases a wine’s complexity and has been pursuing this strategy since 2007.
Under the leadership of executive winemaker Michael Davies, the company, which benefits from its ownership by A to Z Wineworks, has played a considerable role in elevating perception of Willamette Valley wines across the globe. Its 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir carries aromas of blackberries, blueberries, black raspberries, dark cherries, plums, quince and spices, moving toward earthier notes when the nose opens.
Now in its second generation, Sokol Blosser Winery has brought the industry forward many times in the past half-century, most recently with the addition of its new tasting room, a sustainably built, modern structure envisioned to express the soil its wines are created from. That’s not surprising, considering the family also built the state’s first official tasting room. “We are trying to carry forward the collaborative qualities of the pioneers, with an emphasis on quality, family, and long-term viability and sustainability,” said Alison Sokol Blosser, who is co-president with her brother, Alex Sokol Blosser. Its estate now produces wines from more than 86 certified organic acres, including its 2012 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, which showcases dark fruit flavors of cherry and blueberry with earthy and spicy elements.
Main photo: Now run by the second generation of the Sokol Blosser family, the winery of the same name produces exceptional Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson