Thin-skinned, petulant Pinot Noir is difficult to ripen and demands a gentle hand in the winery. Worse still, too many of its simple expressions fail to deliver on the promise of a grape whose impact has been described as the iron fist in a velvet glove.
When grown in the right place, under the right circumstances, however, the variety really delivers on its reputation for elegance, complexity and subtlety. The best examples are aromatic with notes of roses, berries and cherries, and offer balanced flavors of fruit, earth, herb and barrel, with ample natural acidity.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is widely acknowledged as the next best place after Burgundy, where Pinot has thrived for centuries, to explore its vast potential. First planted there by Eyrie Vineyards founder David Lett in the mid-1960s, the area is now the foundation for the state’s growing reputation.
After decades of experimentation, the valley today includes seven sub-AVAs. Each produces a distinct style of Pinot, based on differences in soil, elevation, aspect, farming and winemaker choices.
Good Burgundy is notoriously expensive, and in comparison, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir may be considered a bargain. That said, wines priced under $20, as well as those labeled plainly as Oregon Pinot Noir, rarely provide a thrill. Selections from specific appellations or subappellations priced under $40 would be a good starting point for exploration.
Six to Sip
Drouhin Oregon Roserock Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills; $35, 92 points. Anchored in a fast-rising AVA known to put an earthy subtext to ripe purple and black fruits, this has plenty of polish and power. Editor’s choice.
Ken Wright Pinot Noir Willamette Valley; $22, 91 points. This complex, layered wine is a fantastic bargain, aromatic and beautifully structured with raspberry and spicy plum fruit. Editor’s choice.
Lenné Estate LeNez Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton; $35, 90 points. Estate-grown fruit was gently aged in 10% new French oak, yielding near-term drinkability and medium ageability. Editor’s choice.
Pike Road Xander Taryn Vineyard Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains; $35, 89 points. Fresh blackberry fruit meets wet rock minerality in this single-vineyard offering.
Stoller Pinot Noir Dundee Hills; $35, 89 points. From the heart of Pinot country, this wraps red and black berries with peppery herbs in a light, earthy finish.
Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir Willamette Valley; $24, 91 points. Young, bright and delicious, this fruit-driven wine mixes fresh plum and cherry with just a hint of milk chocolate. Editor’s choice.