WHAT: Many pinot noir lovers have long thought the best pinots in the world were from Burgundy, France, the ancestral home of the grape. After all, growers have had centuries to figure out where to plant and to refine their techniques.
By contrast, the first pinot noir vines were planted in Oregon in the 1960s. And they are turning out spectacular wines.
The Willamette Valley in Oregon is at the same latitude as Burgundy and has a similar cool climate. It also has quick-draining, nutrient-deficient soils, making the vines work hard to produce grapes. That makes better grapes.
Oregon pinots have been among the most talked-about wines in the last 20 years, and they are only getting better as the vines mature.
The Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir is a great case in point. I tasted it along with two other pinot noirs and one pinot gris with a group of friends. We loved all the wines but thought this one was the bargain of the night.
It is fresh and fruit-forward, but still restrained and high in acidity, much like an Old World wine. It is a beautiful garnet in the glass, with aromas of cherry, blackberry and vanilla. Juicy flavors of cherry with some blackberry wash over the palate with a soft, well-rounded finish.
All six of us tasting the wine loved it. I would chill it slightly and open it at least an hour before drinking. I decanted the wine about 45 minutes before we tasted it, and it continued to improve in the glass.
The grapes are hand picked and the clusters put into stainless steel tanks filled with carbon dioxide gas. Yeast is added and the tanks are sealed to keep out oxygen. The grapes burst, and then pressing takes place when taste characteristics are ideal and tannins are gentle. Fermentation continues for seven to 10 days in the tanks.
“This really should be a white wine,” said Wende Bennette, winery ambassador at Willamette Valley Vineyards, who led us through our tasting via a phone call. “It is very much like a white. Drink it like a white.”
She suggested serving it slightly chilled, around 50 degrees. We drank it a few degrees warmer, and it was still terrific.
“This wine appeals to a large audience,” Bennette said. “It’s an easy wine. You don’t have to think about it too much. You can open that bottle and talk about life. You don’t have to talk about the wine.”
The winery says this wine should be drunk by 2017. I agree that it is not a wine you want to age much. The fresh, fruity taste is delightful when the wine is young.
WINERY: Oregon native Jim Bernau founded Willamette Valley Vineyards in 1983 after clearing away blackberry vines and the remnants of a plum orchard. He planted pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris vines.
When he started, he hand-watered the vines with thousands of feet of hose. Wanting to learn more about growing vines, he took classes at University of California-Davis and attended seminars on the west coast and in France.
By 1989, he was ready to build his winery.
He specializes in cool-climate varietals, especially pinot noir. The company has added to its estate vineyards through partnerships such as the merger with Oregon wine industry pioneer Bill Fuller of Tualatin Vineyards, the O’Brien family for Elton Vineyard and Loeza Vineyard.
All of its barrel-aged pinot noir now comes from estate vineyards, which have grown to nearly 500 acres. Through sales of stock the winery now has more than 7,000 owners.
The winery’s philosophy is to do as much of the work as possible by hand. Vineyard managers practice active canopy management to maintain healthy vines and to produce wines that express the varietal and the place where they are grown.
Willamette Valley is the first winery I have heard of that offers a 10-cent bottle deposit if you return an empty bottle to the winery.
Each vineyard lot is fermented and barrel-aged separately. The best of these lots are sold under single-vineyard designations.
The winery produces pinot noirs, including the Estate ($30), Elton ($48), Bernau Block ($55), Tualatin ($48), O’Brien ($100) and Whole Cluster. Other reds include a tempranillo ($40), cabernet sauvignon ($40), grenache ($40), syrah ($40), cabernet franc ($40) and a port-style wine ($50). It also makes a wonderful pinot gris ($16), Estate Chardonnay ($30), sparkling muscat ($19) and a riesling ($14).
The winery has a modern tasting room that offers tasting flights, pairing menus, wine dinners and tours. It is in Turner, south of Portland.
GOES WITH: When I tasted this wine along with the Estate Pinot Noir, the Bernau Block and the pinot gris, we had a variety of snacks such as nuts, cheese, chocolate and pretzels. I also made pulled pork sliders and grilled pork chops cut up into bite-sized pieces. The pulled pork turned out to be the best with the pinot noirs.
The Whole Cluster was pleasant sipping by itself, but the flavors really opened up when we drank it with the pork.
There was something about mixing the fruit flavors in the wine with the smoky pork and sharp barbecue sauce that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Mark, Cindy, Dan, Heather and Teri all agreed these wines were great, but we thought we would buy the Whole Cluster more often because of its great price.
The wine also would pair well with roast duck, salmon, grilled chicken, veal Parmesan, sushi, pizza and spicy Asian dishes.