Well Hello, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Everyone knows about the magic and wonder of Pinot Noir, particularly Burgundian Pinot Noir, since Burgundy's Cote D'Or has Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt superstar status when it comes to winemaking regions for this grape. 

The rest of France, Italy, Germany, and Austria also produce Pinot Noir, but many times the comparison between those and Burgundy pars down to 'good versus great'. In the New World, California and New Zealand are emerging as the next big stars, but they're still no Angie and Brad.

And then there's Oregon. 

Until recently, I associated Oregon with wagon wheels and I don't know why. Now the picture of spoked wooden wheels bouncing through dry deserts, carrying covered wagons through cacti and rattlesnakes, past gold rushers sitting around fires (why do I think this?) has transitioned into an one of a lush countryside full of wine grapes growing wine in the sun. Or, more specifically, the Willamette Valley.  But how does one go from picturing the wild west to, well, Burgundy? Like this...

Picture it. Philadelphia. 2016. The Art Museum Area. We walked into the beautiful, newly opened Bar Hygge for a presentation and tasting conducted by David Paige, the winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard in Willamette Valley, Oregon. David, who probably does not remember me, but whom I consider a friend, had flown into Philadelphia just for Wine Week 2016. 

"We" - an actual  good friend who is a fellow wine nerd and sommelier with a specialty in Oregon Pinot Noir had invited me to join her that afternoon for the tasting. This certain friend has a pretty specific and discerning palate. I have literally seen her famously sniff out the Syrah in a blend that only contained 2%. So there we were, being escorted to felt-covered, mini-couches-as-seats seats, in front of which stood two wine glasses, the night's food and wine menus, and tasting notes. We didn't know it, but we were actually headed towards a whole new way of wine, and therefore life. At least I was.  Did I mention that it was early spring and the sun was shining in through the large windows and the room was super chill and gorgeous? It was.  And I'm pretty sure I looked amazing that afternoon because that would fit in with the rest of this post.

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David Paige himself, not a sales rep, presented us with a Pinot Gris, a Chardonnay, a  Pinot Noir, a Syrah, and a sweet wine called Deglaze. He talked about the grapes, growing environment, and techniques that went into each, as only the winemaker could since, you know, he had actually made the wine.   What a string of awesome sensory moments. Compounded by the fact that the food pairings were amazing. The Hygge kitchen really knows what's up. Everything was beautifully presented and quite literally delicious. I cannot recommend Bar Hygge enough.  I know I say it a lot, but I only say it when I mean it ---> YOUSHOULDGO!

Adelsheim Vineyard is located in Oregon's northern Willamette Valley, which is totally pronounced 'Will-AM-ette', and not 'Will-am-ETTE'. It rhymes with 'dammit'. Now you'll never forget how to say it. (That also rhymes, haha.) Willamette Valley lies in the rain shadow created by the Coastal Range, the mountains to the west that protect it from storms off the Pacific, and is separated from the hotter, drier part  (yes, the desert) of Oregon by the Cascade Range in the east, and is named after the Willamette River that runs throughout. Willamette is Oregon's largest American Viticultural Area (AVA) and is home to six sub appellations: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill-Carlton, each of which produce wine that's slightly different. Adelsheim has vineyards in all but the McMinnville subapp, and seems to focus most on grapes from Chehalem Hills. The vineyard has an interesting history dating back to 1971.

Superficially, it is said to thrive in cool climates, but a weather pattern of warm days and cool nights, along with appropriate soil types, is actually what contributes most to proper sugar, acid, aroma, and tannin levels in the grapes, and in turn, to delicious wine. Although many varieties are planted, Pinot Noir is Oregon's flagship grape, taking up well over half of the land under vine and total value of production, so it's no surprise that it was the star wine of the tasting. It is a thin skinned, early budding, and early ripening grape.

Pinot Noir and pretty much all wine can vary widely in style. Most of these differences are based on the factors listed above, but what's really interesting is that the end result also has to do with clonal selection. Pinot Noir has more clones than any other wine grape. Most were developed in Dijon, France, and are uncreatively known as the Dijon Clones. A clone is  a mutation from the original variety, and different Pinot Noir clones grow differently and lend unique characteristics to the resulting wine. For example, Clone 667 yields color, tannins, and an elegant, but less deep nose, while Clone 777 yields rounder, softer tannins and a more developed nose, and Clone 828 yields large, high quality grapes suitable for sparkling wine.... and on and on through the many clones and all they have to that offer. Clonal selection depends on about one thousand different factors and end goals because nothing is simple. Clonal selection is not specific to Oregon, and Adelsheim really highlights the different clones they use. For this I am grateful, because there is a ton of technical information readily available for each bottle and that is not always the case.

But what makes Oregon, Oregon? In terms of Pinot Noir and in wine in general? (The answer is not wagon wheels. Just let go of the wagon wheels.) What is the style marker in Oregonian Pinot Noir that gives it a sense of place? Maybe I'm thinking a little too deeply, but don't we always want to go home, or at least know where home is?(Wine makes you philosophical even if you're not drinking.)

Well, what might be the right answer for one person may not be the right answer for someone else. David Adelsheim, the owner of the winery, has stated that Oregon is still searching for its readily defined place on the stylistic spectrum. (Remember, quality is not what's being defined.) Oz Clark, author of the awesome Grapes & Wines (on the Winelala Summer Reading List) agrees, noting that Oregon often strives for Burgundian characteristics in regards to its Pinot Noir, but then Clark makes the excellent point that maybe Burgundy should be Burgundy, and other producers in other regions should just follow their own instincts. I love that, because it's a life lesson too. It's ok to work on figuring out who you are, right? David Adelsheim seems to agree. In a 2012 interview with The Drinks Business, he shared that Oregon is starting to distance itself from Burgundy, and points to the fruit presence in Oregon Pinot, which is not something Burgundy 'really cherishes' (true Burgundian style usually has to do with a sense of earthiness). 

So maybe Oregon Pinot Noir is what it isn't. Perhaps it's that simple. Or maybe it's so complex that it blows your mind. Either way, if you haven't already, start exploring. Start with Adelsheim, it may just welcome you to a whole new way of wine. And life!

Noelle AllenComment