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Pursuing Pinot Precision: Oregon's Dundee Hills
By Michael Franz
Dec 26, 2006
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One can always stir up a vigorous debate by asking whether Pinot Noir is the world's most noble grape for red wine.  But since we're in the midst of the holidays, which are supposed to be about peace and goodwill and so forth, let's focus on two indisputable propositions:  Pinot is certainly the world's hottest grape variety at the moment, and also the variety making wines most "transparent" to their point of origin.  Cabernet Sauvignon is far more consistent, but Pinot is supreme as the red "grape of place."

Cabernet Sauvignon has the important virtue of making good wines anywhere it can ripen fully.  It has been tried almost everywhere, and almost everywhere it has succeeded:  France, Italy, Spain, North and South America, Australia and South Africa all crank out fine Cabs with impressive regularity.  Pinot Noir has likewise been tried almost everywhere, but Pinot's results are as patchy as Cabernet's are constant.

If you were feeling adventurous, I could take you on a world tasting tour of weird and wacky Pinots that would prove a double-edged point:  Pinot Noir is indeed so sensitive to particularities of place that it produces very different wines in different places, yet very few places make competent--much less compelling--Pinot.

Although hundreds of locations have been tried, we can count the places that routinely make compelling Pinot on one hand:  Burgundy, California, New Zealand and Oregon.  These four will leave us a free finger on our counting hand to credit the occasional good example that pops up in Germany, Italy, Australia or South Africa.  But let's be candid:  these four countries on the second tier are a long way from joining the four on top, and most of the Pinots made in these places will leave you with no doubt regarding which finger is the appropriate digit for a salute.

Returning to the four spots that have convincingly made the grade with Pinot Noir, I would say that Oregon is currently in the most interesting phase of its development.

The best spots for making Pinot in Burgundy are defined with geometric precision, and outcomes are largely a matter of seasonal weather and the skill of particular producers.  California's status is quite different:  whereas Burgundy frequently struggles with bad weather, California's climate is problematically pleasant.  Consistent sunshine makes the world's best Pinots at affordable prices in California (noplace else comes close in the $12 - $15 range), but high-end efforts usually show too much sun, often seeming candied and chunky in their ripeness, even in purportedly "cool climate" spots like Carneros or Sonoma's Russian River.

New Zealand is getting better with Pinot Noir faster than anyplace ever has, and it is doing so in a number of distinct locales, most notably Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago.  Yet high-end Pinot from New Zealand is still in its infancy, and though the infant is remarkably precocious, we are at least a decade away from having sufficient vine age and enough vintages under our belts to be able to assess accurately its particular sweet spots, stylistic profiles and overall stature among the world's Pinot elite.

I'm sorry that it has taken me six paragraphs to develop the point I want to pursue, but here it is:  Pinot Noir is the world's greatest grape of place, and the spot in the world where the most interesting work is currently being done on the relation of Pinot and place is in Oregon.

During the past few years, Oregon's vintners have pressed beyond emphasizing their state's general strength with Pinot Noir to distinguish and legalize more particular growing regions.  Until recently, almost all of Oregon's Pinots were identified with the Willamette Valley appellation, which was legally established in 1983.  This was hardly more specific than "Oregon" as a geographic indicator, since the Willamette Valley extends a full 150 miles to the south of Portland.

In Burgundian terms, 150 miles might as well be an entire continent, and it seems entirely appropriate that vintners have pressed for more closely defined appellations.  The creation of such appellations or, more precisely, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) is a formal process overseen by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB for short).

The TTB does not consider the stylistic qualities of finished wines when ruling on applications for AVA status, but it does require that petitioners establish a region as being distinct from neighboring areas in viticultural terms.  During the past three years, six regions have met that standard and been awarded AVA status:  Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton in 2004, Ribbon Ridge and McMinnville in 2005, and Chehalem Mountains and Eola-Amity Hills in 2006.

I hope to provide separate assessments of each of these new AVAs in the near future, but the Dundee Hills is the logical place to start on account of being the most densely planted and developed of the regions.  Planted acreage within the 6,500 acre area quadrupled from 299 acres in 1980 to 1,264 in 2002, which was when a petition to establish an AVA was first filed.

The Dundee Hills AVA was established on January 31, 2005, on the strength of several characteristics.  It was found to be a coherent and distinctive area in terms of elevation, climate, and soils, as well as modern viticultural history.  Topographically, it consists of a north-south spine with ridges and small valleys on the east, south and west sides of a landmass set above the Willamette and Chehalem Valleys.

In climatic terms, it experiences warmer nights and less frost than the adjacent valley floors, and is protected from the variable weather of the Columbia River Gorge by the Chehalem Mountains that are set to the north of the Dundee Hills.  It is also protected from excessive rainfall by the Coast Range, which receives 90 to 135 inches of rain, whereas the Dundee Hills area is hit by about a third that much--30 to 45 inches annually.

The Dundee Hills are also marked by distinctive soils, particularly reddish, lava-based soils with elements of silt, clay and loam, as well as sedimentary soils on the steeper slopes of the AVA's western side.

Naturally, it will take some time before we can really get a fix on the particular stylistic profile that will emerge from the Dundee Hills as a growing region once variations in vine age and production techniques begin to smooth out.  Early indications are that red fruit notes may predominate over black ones, and that the wines may show more textural softness than those sourced from certain other new AVAs.  My recent tastings lend some limited support to that outline, but, as always, I'd encourage you to experiment on your own.  Here are notes of ten top performers I've tasted recently, listed alphabetically in order of preference:

Lange Estate Winery, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir Estate 2005 ($60): This wine offers an impressive combination of power and purity.  The fruit shows both red and black notes, with the former lending a certain prettiness and the latter providing guts and depth.  On balance, it seems more Nuits than Beaune in Burgundian terms, and the relatively soft structure gets the parallel pointing toward Vosne rather than Gevrey.  Such likenesses are not mere verbiage, as this is a wine that ought to keep vintners in the Côte d'Or up at night:  It offers all the sweet, soft sexiness of New World Pinot, but with real finesse and class in the Old World mode.  92

Stoller Vineyards, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir 2004 ($36):  A lovely wine with open, expressive fruit showing predominant fruit notes of ripe red and black cherries.  The oak influence is admirably restrained and the texture rounded, tender and charming.  The 2003 release shows more assertive oak that dries the finish slightly, but is nevertheless recommended.  90

Torii Mor, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir Olson Estate Vineyard 2004 ($60): This wine is both sweet and fruity, but also concentrated and powerful.  Low crop yields are evident in the form of fruit that is meaty and deeply flavored, and notable oak and tannin add to the structural seriousness of the wine.  However, the tannins are soft and sweet, and the tender texture of the wine and absence of bitterness in the finish shows that the wine was not made with excessive maceration.  Nicely integrated and balanced, this is impressive stuff.  90

White Rose Wines, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir White Rose Vineyard "Quiotee's Lair" 2004 ($45): This delicious wine shows lots of character and yet plenty of restraint as well, which isn't an easy combination to achieve.  With very expressive notes of black cherries, cola, spices and light oak toast, it offers up lots of aroma and flavor, yet shows moderate sweetness, alcohol and tannin.  Very tastefully made.  90

Archery Summit, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir "Premier Cuvée" 2004 ($37):  This wine edges right up to the line where over-oaking begins, but stays on the right side of it with assertive notes of vanilla and toast that are appealing and just reticent enough to let the dark cherry fruit notes shine through.  Tannins (partly derived from wood) are a little dry in the finish, suggesting that this will be better in another couple of years.  89

Winter's Hill Vineyard, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir 2004 ($28): This is an affordable Pinot by Oregon standards at the moment, and yet it surely doesn't taste as if it were made on the cheap.  The fruit is relatively simple but very pure, which is the most important thing with Pinot Noir from anywhere.  Notes of red and black cherries are very appealing, and there's just a little influence of oak to lend complexity.  The barest bit of bitterness shows up in the tannins in the finish, but this will easily be tamed by food.  88

Erath Vineyards, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir "Estate Selection" 2004 ($30):  An interesting wine with a faintly funky, mushroomy aromatic streak, this shows a bit of Burgundian character in its earthiness without seeming dirty.  The fruit provides a foundation of pure red cherry notes that keeps the mushroom aroma welcome and in appropriate balance.  87

The Four Graces, Willamette Valley (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir Reserve 2004 ($35): This wine isn't quite as impressive as its bottle, but we're talking about a very impressive bottle, so that isn't much of a knock on the wine.  The juice here is fresh and nicely balanced, with notes of both red and black cherries and accents of woodsmoke, toast and spices.  87

Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir 2004 ($28):  Pretty more than powerful, this is a nice little wine that shows the sort of delicacy that is proper to Pinot Noir without seeming wimpy or diluted.  The red cherry fruit is simple but very appealing, and oak influence is appropriately subtle in light of the fruit's relatively light weight.  87

De Ponte Cellars, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Pinot Noir 2004 ($34): Plenty of readers would enjoy this wine, and I enjoyed it too, but critically find it a little over-ripe, with too much overt sweetness and alcoholic heat for my taste.  Nevertheless, there's no doubting the wine's basic charm, with light tannin and relatively low acid keeping structural elements in the background, thus revealing lots of juicy, gushy red cherry fruit.  86

Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com