Calling all Pinot Pioneers

another sunrise, Maresh Vineyard

In Oregon you can buy an acre of bare land suitable for growing grapes for $10,000. In the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy that’s the price in Euros  you’d pay for grapes sufficient to make one barrel of good 1er cru in the Côte de Nuits. An acre in production – a mature vineyard – will set you back $20-25,000, pushing up to $65,000 for the very best quality in the Williamette Valley. Why is this interesting? Well it means Oregon is still a place for pioneers. People with more passion than pounds.

When David Adelsheim came to Oregon in 1971 he no choice other than to plant a vineyard. Today’s budding winemaker can bypass the farming and get starting on making and selling wine for there are plenty of grapes for sale. Thirty new wineries open a year, reflecting the buzz of activity here.

This is a place of small producers. Only 1% of wine made in the US comes from Oregon. It’s a land for the artisanal producer, be it for wine or beer.

Maybe it’s my love of Pinot Noir and it’s certainly my interest in terroir that keeps me very interested in this region. 62% of Oregon is planted with Pinot Noir and 70% in the Williamette Valley – epicentre of pinot production. David Adelsheim was one of the trail blazers in the Seventies. “We wanted to make great wine and so we planted three great grape varieties – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Riesling was often made with residual sugar so was not taken seriously, while Chardonnay had already established a style in Napa and Sonoma and we couldn’t compete with that full-on style, but Pinot Noir had yet to find an identity.”

So let’s say you have a passion for Pinot Noir. You’d love to make some wine. You don’t have a few million quid to edge your way onto the Côte d’Or, even were land available. Why might you chose Oregon? Pinot Noir is a capricious grape. It is grown in California, but it’s a trifle hot… climate and wine. While Oregon is a relatively cool climate. It’s no co-incidence that the most of the outside investment in the region comes from Burgundy.

Oregon has some similarities with Burgundy and differences from California. Let’s start with the climate. Oregon has similar ‘northerly’ light to Burgundy because of the latitude. It has the same number of light units, as opposed to heat units (clearly more of these). On the 21st June the sun goes down in Oregon at 10pm, while it is 30 minutes later in California. Bud break will start earlier in California. The fruit is still ripening in September in Oregon while a Californian September it is warmer and the season shorter. This makes for jammier fruit in California and fresher fruit in Williamette. The ripening season is less like Burgundy – it’s 80-81 degrees in through July and August in Williamette, but they do rein back with quite a strong diurnal – a drop of 20 degrees at night.


The vineyards are protected between mountains – the Cascades to the East and the Coastal range to the west. Various winds slow down the ripening process. A particularly cold wind blows through the Van Duzer Corridor in the late afternoon, extending the end of the growing season. This wind wine, whistling through a gap in the mountains from the Pacific Ocean, should not to be confused with the fog that rolls in from the ocean in California… bringing the threat of humidity and disease in its wake. There is another warmer wind that comes down the Columbia River Gorge.

Of course Oregon does not have the same rainfall pattern as Burgundy. They have similar annual quantity, but It rains year round in Burgundy – don’t I know it, while Oregon the three summer months are dry as a bone. Despite this, very few mature vineyards in the Williamette valley are irrigated. If you are to the East or South you will have to put in the pipework, but in the Pinot ‘sweet spot’ apparently not.


And now to the soils. The bottom of the valley is off limits – great for blueberries, hazelnuts and hops, but far too fertile for vitis vinifera. The vineyards are planted on the lower slopes up to 700-800ft. These days people are starting to plant higher – at 900-1000 ft in the pursuit of better acidity. As for the soils type, it can be divided into three – marine sedimentary, volcanic and loess.

In brief – oldest first – the marine sedimentary soil is unsurprisingly derived from land under the ocean originating some 25-50 million years ago.

Volcanic comes from a massive lava flow (17-23 million years ago) 2 km deep which flowed to the ocean. Eroded over millions of years this has left a red soil – notable in the Dundee Hills. Volcanic soils tend to be quite fertile.

The loess is the windswept silt of the foothills and covers basalt (volcanic). The wines will be very different if the basalt has this loess covering.

There is also the Misoula Flood soil – a sort of bath rim left from multiple floods at the end of the last ice age from a huge lake in Montana which forced its way down the Columbia River Gorge bringing a whole bunch of stuff with it.

You may have spotted the obvious in this soil summary – it shares little or nothing with the calcareous marls of Burgundy. Where is the limestone and clay? Ain’t any. The pH of the soil in Oregon is quite acidic – you can add lime, but it leaches out. But as it happens Pinot Noir is quite happy on these soils, seemingly more finicky about climate than soil. And of course Pinot Noir is an aristocratic variety which will transmit the character of that soil, whatever that might be. Only when it gets too hot does have a melt down and… well, it turns to jam.

Point is – Oregon offers plenty of possibilities for terroir wine. At the moment Oregon is still discovering its terroir. The Willamette Valley AVA has been subdivided into six more specific AVAs, each with a variety of soils and aspects. There is plenty to be explored as a wine drinker or indeed as a winemaker…

Momtazi Vineyard harvest 2014.Kelley Fox

The lovely Momtazi vineyard in the McMinnville Foothills AVA where the talented Kelly Fox makes her wines (next month’s blog).

Now let’s get the Nose in a glass

These are from 2014. 2014 was a warm vintage. In September the temperature reached 27-28 degrees resulting in rounded and approachable wines. 2015 was not quite so ripe. In September the temperature decreased to 25-26 degrees producing somewhat more restrained wine. In 2016 the temperature also dropped in September.

Elk Cove Vineyards, Five Mountain Pinot Noir 2014

This comes from the Chehalem Mountain AVA, from loess – a windblown silt.
Expressive dark cherry aroma with some roasted red pepper notes. Satin texture up front, more crunch behind. Very pinot. It is vibrant and has slight austerity.

Chehalem, Ridgecrest vineyards Pinot Noir 2014

This is from Ribbon Ridge AVA. The soil is marine sediment
Blueberry fruits and some floral notes, possibly from the whole bunch. Ripe, but relatively light bodied, leaner frame. Rather elegant. The tannins are firm and fine. There is red and black currant fruit on the palate. Quite high toned sweetly fruited with nicely balanced freshness.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Laurene Pinot Noir 2014

This is from the Dundee Hills AVA and is from volcanic soil.
Full fruit driven wine. Quite a dense fruit aroma. Full rich, ripe palate. Juicy. Good depth. Richer and bolder tannins. I like the energy. Quite full and punchy.

It is easy to take too much from the grapes from the Dundee Hills. I’m told you have to be pretty restrained with the extraction.

Cristom Vineyards, Eileen vineyards Pinot Noir 2014

This is from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA and Volcanic soils. If I understand rightly this is higher on the slope, as it is in the south of the Williamette wherer it is slightly warmer. The soils are not as deep as in Dundee Hills.
Rich red cherry aroma with a touch of liquorice. Plenty of soft, silky tannins. Good depth and concentration. Ripe, sweet fruit, rounded, but not heavy. I like the balance and the energy.

Eola-Amity AVA is cooled by the wind comes across the coastal range. This dries the berries and gives this sweetness. I understand that the fruit is much less forthcoming from this area and over-extraction is not an issue. This has 50% whole cluster.

Sniffing out a general impression.

The two wines from the volcanic soils seemed to me to share a certain energy – punchy Drouhin and energy in Cristom – but that could be the farming. They are more obviously fruity. There is some thought that the volcanic soils give more red fruit and the loess and marine sediment more black. Not sure about that. The sedimentary and loess soils seem to make slightly leaner and more austere wines, while the volcanic gave richness and more obvious sweetness.

David Adelsheim sneaked a Chardonnay in at the end of the tasting. His 2016 Adelsheim Chardonnay. This came from a sedimentary soil in Ribbon Ridge and it had a notably salty finish.

Nose in the dark:

From tasting just four wines, the nose cannot deduce too much. This would require an extensive tasting to pinpoint the character of specific terroir and this is precisely what the region’s winemakers are now doing as they seek to understand the diversity within each AVA.

It took Burgundy many hundreds of years to do this, but these guys are wasting no time.