No single place grows every grape variety equally well. Moreover, grapes know nothing about imaginary lines like state borders. In the Pacific Northwest, enterprising winemakers reach into neighboring states to tap great vineyard sources and craft compelling wines.
South to Oregon
For half a century, Washington’s winegrowers have been an irresistible force, consistently proving the experts wrong. Since the state began its long march toward recognition as a world-class wine region, vintners there have expanded the range of viable grapes. First, it was Riesling, then other cool-climate whites, followed by more southern reds and whites from France, Italy and Spain.
One grape, however, has proven to be an immovable object here: Pinot Noir.
One grape has proven to be an immovable object: Pinot Noir.
Decades ago, Oregon claimed Pinot Noir as its signature variety. But in Washington, it has proved vexing. With few exceptions—mostly sparkling wines or the occasional rosé—Pinot Noir has been a bust in the Columbia Valley. Nor has it thrived in western Washington, despite some 40 years of trying.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? No fewer than a dozen Washington winemakers have taken on that challenge. Each tackles Pinot Noir in small-lot, experimental projects. The catch? They purchase and, in some instances, plant grapes in Oregon.
The importance of these projects can’t be denied. There are several top-tier winemakers behind them, and a few have even bigger plans.
John Abbott left Abeja Winery in Walla Walla to ultimately build Devona, a winery in Oregon. Chris Figgins has released several vintages of his Toil Oregon project while he continued to make Washington-based Leonetti Cellar and Figgins Family wines. He recently purchased land and planted a vineyard in the Chehalem Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA). Mark McNeilly (Mark Ryan Winery) has debuted four wines under the brand name Megan Anne.
David O’Reilly, who founded Oregon’s Owen Roe winery but also made Washington wines, has moved to Yakima Valley, but continues to produce a stellar lineup of Oregon Pinots. Jon Meuret (Maison Bleue), Chris Sparkman (Sparkman Cellars), Chris Dowsett (Buty) and Rob Newsom (Boudreaux) all have Oregon Pinots queued up.
For Newsom, Dowsett, Figgins and Abbott, hauling the grapes back to their facilities in Washington State can be a seven-hour drive that must be done in a single day, after the grapes are picked. For some, it is a labor of love.
“Pinot Noir was my first wine love, and it’s like seeing an old, old friend,” says Abbott. “I love its expressiveness, combined with its ability to reach flavor maturity at lower sugar levels. I also love the challenge of making it the best it can be in the toughest of vintages.”
For Figgins, the answer is a long-standing love of Oregon Pinot, going back some 15 years.
“I made small practice lots in 2010 and 2011. I started casually, and then seriously, kicking dirt and dreaming about planting a vineyard there,” he says.
That vineyard is now reality, with the first six acres planted last year. An onsite winery is also planned.
Meuret, who built a reputation focused on Rhône varieties, is also onto Pinot. He says that the transition wasn’t that difficult.
“My style of winemaking has always had a Burgundian approach to it,” he says. “In some ways, I was already producing Pinot Noir [stylistically], but in fact, I was using Grenache or Syrah.”
For Dowsett, it’s a return to his winemaking roots when he worked on the family vineyard on the old Charles Coury property (now David Hill winery). Now, with grapes from his sister’s vineyard on Pete’s Mountain, he has a rosé in limited release and a full-on Pinot Noir in the bottle for spring.
Along with the distance involved, another challenge: Federal labeling regulations do not allow Washington winemakers to use anything but Oregon as an appellation on any wines vinified in Washington.
O’Reilly, of Owen Roe, avoids that problem, as he makes his Pinots in Oregon. He says that his move into Washington has had a positive impact.
“It actually changes the mindset slightly,” he says. “If there’s any take-home message looking at producing Pinot Noir from a Washington perspective, it’s that this grape is so much more delicate than Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. We are fixated on processing cooler fruit than before, that will retain more whole berries in fermentation in order to have texture and perfume.”
Despite the challenges, these producers make excellent wines, and they put a bit of a Washington spin on Oregon grapes. The immovable object, though not entirely displaced, has at least budged. —Paul Gregutt
Recommended Oregon Wines
Recommended Washington Wines
Pamplin 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $50, 93 points. Though not labeled as such, this 100% varietal hails from Red Mountain, with the fruit coming from Klipsun (64%), Scooteney Flats and Tapteil vineyards. The aromas are brooding and locked up at present, with notes of mineral, black currant, spice, pencil lead and blackberry. The fruit flavors are black as night, supported by firm but exceptionally well-integrated tannins. It will be at its best from 2023–31, but should last well beyond that. Cellar Selection.
18401 Cellars 2013 Proprietary Red (Walla Walla Valley); $75, 92 points. This is the inaugural release from this Oregon-based winery, with the fruit coming from Loess and Seven Hills vineyards. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Merlot (38%) and Petit Verdot, it offers aromas of pencil box, high-toned flowers, bittersweet chocolate, herbs and barrel spices. The flavors show depth and intensity as well as exquisite balance and length. Editors’ Choice.
Angel Vine 2012 Alder Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel (Columbia Valley); $24, 91 points. Coming from the Horse Heaven Hills region, this wine offers appealing aromas of cranberry, raspberry fruit leather, red currant and spice, all displaying a fine sense of purity. The tart fruit flavors are broad and generous, but stay in balance. Editors’ Choice.
Script 2012 Stage Right Cabernet Franc (Columbia Valley); $45, 91 points. Hailing principally from Two Blondes Vineyard, the aromas of cocoa, savory herbs, pencil shavings, anise and spice are followed by fruit flavors so soft and plush you just want to sink into them. The finish lingers. It explores the variety’s more savory side.
Wondrous 2013 Red I.Q. (Columbia Valley); $14, 91 points. This blend features Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot primarily, and comes from some top-quality vineyards that seldom see at a wine at this price, including Seven Hills, Canoe Ridge, Wallula, Tapteil and Champoux. Aromas of herb, berry, cherry and toasty spices give way to high-quality fruit that has seen a lot of love and care. It’s a big-time winner at this price. Best Buy.
Analemma 2012 Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine Atavus Vineyard Pinot Noir (Columbia Gorge); $59, 90 points. Tantalizing aromas of toast, yeast, raspberry and freshly sliced green apple give way to fresh and tart lemony flavors. It brings a real sense of freshness and vibrancy that runs from head to tail, with smoky notes on the finish.