By Jim Peterson
Wine Enthusiast & Instagram Wine Influencer
There are all sorts of ways to expand your wine knowledge. As unlikely as it seems, the pandemic provided a most interesting opportunity when I joined a wine tasting group based in Oregon. We met virtually on Zoom each week. My increased interest in Oregon wines had begun a few years earlier, and this group of committed Oregon wine enthusiasts had all sorts of insider information to impart. We even had a few winemakers join us to introduce their wines and talk about their winemaking techniques.
The history of Oregon winemaking goes back to the mid-1800s when grapevines were carried along the Oregon Trail. Interestingly, Oregon voters approved a prohibition law in 1916, four years before the 18th Amendment was passed. Even after prohibition was lifted, it wasn’t until the 1960s that serious winemaking began making a return. The Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) was the first AVA designated in Oregon, and that wasn’t until 1983. There are now 23 AVAs in Oregon with over 1,000 wineries across the state.
While there are a multitude of grape varieties grown in Oregon, the Pinot Noir grape represents over 50% of the plantings. The Pinot Gris white grape is a distant second, followed by Chardonnay. The Pinot Gris is more of a legacy grape, and many wineries are now replacing it with Chardonnay. That’s because Oregon Chardonnay is quickly gaining a reputation for exceptional quality. With that in mind, let’s explore what makes Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay so special.
OREGON PINOT NOIR
The Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon is home to about two thirds of Oregon’s wineries. There are 11 nested AVAs that highlight some of the unique smaller microclimates within the Willamette Valley. The generally cooler climate is augmented by soils with an interesting mix of marine sediment, volcanic material, and loess (a silty, loamy dust-like material). This typically produces Pinot Noir with intense fruit that includes bright cherry and red berry aromas and flavors. These flavors are usually supported by a noticeable acidity on the palate. Acidity can sometimes be recognized by a sensation of tartness that can literally make you salivate. This is especially true with younger Oregon Pinot Noir. They will age beautifully though, and when the fruit remains fresh, and the hints of earthiness surface, it’s heaven in a glass.
Jason Wehling, a member of the Oregon tasting group I mentioned, has an incredible collection of Oregon Pinot Noir, with his current oldest vintage from 1983. He says, “Oregon Pinot Noir has texture, flavor, and soul. Veronique Drouhin [of Domaine Drouhin Oregon] once told me that Oregon Pinot isn’t velvet, it’s cashmere. That is so true! People sometimes forget Pinot Noir is white inside, so the tannins are mostly from the skin. These tannins are usually more supple than other reds, and they integrate more quickly with age. That silky smooth texture always gets me.” Jason also notes the sense of community and sharing of knowledge among the Oregon winemakers. “The winemakers are interested in the pursuit of excellence in a way that supersedes their own advantage. I love this quality of the Oregon wine culture.”
That same culture has permeated the Oregon Chardonnay revolution. While I had tasted a few Oregon Pinot Noir over the years, it wasn’t until a few years ago when I finally tasted my first Oregon Chardonnay. Wow! What a surprise it was. I have always loved Chardonnay from Chablis (as noted in an earlier article), and it has a lot to do with the minerality and crispness of Chablis. The Oregon Chardonnay has a similar freshness to it that I find irresistible.
I reached out to Clare Carver of Big Table Farm for a comment on Oregon Chardonnay. It turns out she had just tasted a bottle of Chablis at her birthday dinner and her takeaway was, “Oregon walks the balance perfectly between warmth and acidity that brings out the best in Chardonnay.” I cannot think of a more perfect description. I know it’s true because the 2016 Big Table Farm Willamette Valley Chardonnay was the first Oregon Chardonnay I tried.
I also commented to Clare how there is such a difference between their AVA Chardonnays – the Eola Amity versus the Yamhill-Carlton. She pointed out the Eola Amity is a bit softer and more elegant because there is a volcanic layer of soil to keep it in check. The Yamhill-Carlton is spicy and bolder with more minerality due to the excess of marine sedimentary soil. They are both incredibly delicious in their own way.
This holds true for so many great Oregon Chardonnay producers. The Chardonnay grape is allowed to express itself more clearly due to a limited use of new oak when aging, typically 10-25% at most. Neutral oak or stainless steel is used for the rest. The best Oregon Chardonnay can display a spectrum of flavors from lemon zest to lemon curd along with complex stony notes, spice, melon, apple, or peach. Like I said, they are irresistible.
With over 700 wineries in Willamette Valley, you can imagine how hard it might be to whittle it down to the few I can fit on this page. With that said, here is a short list of favorites I have compiled with a little help from my friend Jason.
BIG TABLE FARM: To say I’m a fan of Big Table Farm wines is an understatement. They have a beautiful lineup of single vineyard and single AVA Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. On the fun side, their “Laughing Pig” rosé, Pinot Gris, and Syrah all reflect the personality of the husband-and-wife team of Brian Marcy and Clare Carver.
BEAUX FRÈRES: Michael Etzel started his winemaking adventure in 1986, buying a foreclosed pig farm with the help of his brother-in-law, famed wine critic Robert Parker, Jr. The winery name derives from the French idiom for brother-in-law. Simply put, Beaux Frères helped set the standard for how amazing Oregon wines can be.
DOMAINE DROUHIN OREGON: You had to know something good would come from Oregon when the world-famous Burgundy producer, Domaine Joseph Drouhin, planted its roots there. A few years ago, I had their 1992 Pinot Noir. It was astonishing. I love their wines.
Antica Terra: Their first vines were planted in 1989 where prehistoric seabeds sit at the surface. This forces the vines to struggle. As any oenophile knows, struggling vines can produce great wines. To preserve the greatness of single plots, Antica Terra will top off barrels using small riverbed rocks to eliminate the air rather than blend in a juice of lesser quality.
WALTER SCOTT: I cannot count the number of times I have seen Instagram posts from my wine friends praising the Chardonnays of Walter Scott Wines. This is the work of another husband-and-wife team, Erica Landon and Ken Pahlow. The name Walter Scott honors Ken’s grandfather (Walter) and his nephew (Scott).
MORGEN LONG: Seth Morgen Long only makes Chardonnay. My friend Jason makes a nice case for his wines by saying, “That dude is a trip, and he’s making insane Chardonnay. Seriously!” I ask you. What better recommendation could there be?
I’ll close this out by saying there are many other great producers in Oregon. I’ve also met winemakers, family members, and tasted wines from Ayoub Wines, Brooks Wine, Hazelfern Cellars, and Vincent Wine Company. All of these, along with so many others, have their unique stories and outstanding wines. Willamette Valley houses an amazing selection of fantastic producers, and I encourage you to search them out and acquire some of these small production wines you will likely never see in a local wine shop or grocery store.
Take a trip along your personal Oregon Wine Trail. Now is the time. The cooler winter months are the best opportunity to have wine shipped to Texas. It may be the only way you’ll ever taste some of these. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Cheers!
Follow Jim on Instagram, @tx_wine_pilot, for more wine tips and reviews.
Jim Peterson is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who mainly flew the A-10 fighter jet. He has ties to the wine business going back over 20 years and is an avid wine collector. His extensive wine knowledge includes travel to many wine regions, tasting many of the world’s top wines, and ongoing personal wine exploration. He has cultivated a large following on his Instagram account, @tx_wine_pilot.