Pinot noir. Nicknamed the “heartbreak” grape, because it’s notoriously difficult to cultivate — although the French have been growing it for centuries in Burgundy. But the mystique is bound to help keep up the price if nothing else.
Pinot noir is an extremely flexible food wine in addition to its downright deliciousness, and the world has taken a shine to it despite its country-western qualities. The grape is now planted in parts of the globe as different as New Zealand and New York, Austria and Argentina, and Ontario and Oregon. As Omniboire has previously investigated pinots globally and in New Zealand, it seemed time to touch on Oregon, where they take pinot very seriously, even though its first Willamette Valley pinot plantings, courtesy of pioneer David Lett, only took place in 1965.
To assay the progress the state’s winemakers have made in the past 25 years, Omniboire assembled a pinot tasting at Oregon-friendly 20nine Restaurant & Wine Bar, with owner Troy Fulmer and bar manager Shayne Bernier, and wine consultant and pinot partisan Gary Turner. We sat down to 10 pre-poured wines and let the games begin. •
2007 Chehalem 3 Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $32
Bing cherry, rhubarb, even a little leather
Our number-one wine also scored well in the major wine publications — though no two critics were even remotely alike in their descriptors. Which makes us feel secure in our own: “A complete wine,” said Turner, “balanced in the mouth and not over-the-top.” “There’s a little nuttiness, with cherry, raspberry and rhubarb,” claimed Bernier. “It’s smooth, with big Bing cherry,” offered Fulmer — who added that this wine is usually a good value.
2007 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $40
Still tight on finish but balanced, with red berries
A blend of three pinot clones. “The most well-balanced and food-friendly of the bunch,” thought Fulmer, who says he sold cases of the stuff in December. Turner found it “a mouthful, astringent,” thought that it would age well, and related that “the owners think they’re making the best wine in the state.” “Red berries and strawberry jam,” noted Bernier.
2006 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $54
Velvety texture, caramel and coffee, needs air to open up
This wine was sampled by the panel in a .375 liter bottle, perhaps giving it a head start on maturity. “It has the feel and weight of a brandy,” observed Bernier. “It had Jolly Rancher fruit at first, but now it’s coming around,” said Fulmer, who envisioned it with chicken and waffles. “It changed significantly over time `in the glass`, which is the mark of a reserve,” remarked Turner.
2008 Ken Wright Cellars Shea Vineyard Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir, $40
Complex and herbal with some blackberry
“It didn’t score well on the nose, but everything else got perfect marks,” noted Fulmer, who envisioned the wine with duck, a combination he likened to the perfect pairing of peanut butter and jelly. (It’s on 20nine’s wine list, by the way.) Bernier thought it definitely needed food, but tweaked the duck towards confit. “It seemed young yet very full,” said Turner, who called salmon his ideal food pairing. Omniboire’s take was “sharp and tannic,” yet true to type.
2007 Lemelson Vineyards Thea’s Selection Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $34
Unctuous, elegant, and a little herbal, but needs food to pop
The group was all over the map on this one. “I didn’t know what to think of it; it puzzled me,” said Bernier, who had a hard time detecting the nose. Turner, on the other hand, claimed to have sniffed out “an intense nose,” but felt that the wine needed food. Fulmer agreed: “It was flat at first, but hopped like crazy with the cheese.” Omniboire detected some herbal qualities and thought the wine could use more fruit. Used to be that Oregon pinots often had too much of it.
2007 Evening Land Vineyards Seven Springs Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir, $43
A touch of earth, barnyard, and incense, rustic
Evening Land Vineyards wins the prize for most poetic name, if nothing else, and some of our reactions verged on the poetic as well. “I get root vegetables, earth, and smoky charcoal — I feel like I’m at mass on a Sunday morning,” confessed Bernier. “Its earthy, rustic, trying to copy Burgundy … but above average,” thought Fulmer. “It’s the oddball. I thought you had tossed in a Burgundy to throw us off,” said Turner. Yes, it’s the kind of thing we would do.
2007 Argyle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $23
Light and bright cherry, easy-drinking
Rich cherry aromas and flavors distinguished this wine. Pie cherry, in fact, thought Omniboire. Bernier also sussed out some spice. “If you need an easy drinker for a wine bar, this is it,” suggested Turner.
2007 North Valley Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $33
Ripe berry with spice and cherry on palate
A second label of Soter Vineyards, it struck Bernier as “young, vibrant,” and a little high in perceived alcohol (it’s 13.6 percent). Turner loved the nose but felt the wine didn’t deliver on the palate. Fulmer retorted, “I think I’m tasting a totally different wine … I find it dusty, with no fruit.”
2008 Ponzi Vineyards Tavola Pinot Noir, $19
Faint nose, light, acidic cherry on palate
“We had this by the glass. I didn’t like it then and don’t like it now,” said Bernier. Opinions differed on the nose. “Weak,” thought Turner. “Biggest fruit — but way too much acid,” countered Fulmer. “Pinot lite” summed up Omniboire.