Next week the tasting spotlight falls on America’s Oregon and Washington State with two days of specialist events and masterclasses. To help get us in the mood Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, who will be sharing his own thoughts on the winemakers and producers that are shaking up the Oregon wine scene at a special tasting on March 12, looks at the overall Oregon winemaking scene and how it has got to where it is today.
Next week sees arguably the biggest focus on the Oregon and Washington State wine scene that the UK has seen with two days of talks, seminars and masterclasses. Here Doug Wregg, of Les Caves de Pyrene, presents the case for Oregon with a look back through its wine history.
Although the first vines were planted back in the mid-19th century, Oregon may be said to have a very youthful wine culture. As a result of Prohibition in the early 20th century, wine and the art of winemaking effectively disappeared until the early 1960s, when pioneers such as David Lett, Charles Coury, Richard Sommer and Dick Erath, brought cuttings of a range of cool-climate vine varieties and planted them in various locations in the state.
There are inevitably tipping points in history and the international success of David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie Vineyards ‘Reserve’ Pinot Noir added to the widely-held view that Oregon was a cool-climate state destined to produce world-class Pinot Noir. Oregon’s reputation has boomed ever since: Pinot Noir, a noble grape and a fine one to hitch your star to, became the default variety – around 60% of Oregon’s vineyards are currently planted to this variety.
The decision of Domaine Drouhin to set up shop in the Willamette Valley proved the catalyst for investment in expensive and sophisticated winery facilities. Individuals with personal fortunes built many of these facilities, like WillaKenzie Estate, King Estate, Domaine Serene and Lemelson Vineyards.
With the money came state-of-the-art equipment, as well as vineyard managers and oenologists who would continue to elevate the perception of the wines. Pinot Noir became the Oregon story and was the commercial driver of all marketing wine activity.
All this was building on Oregon’s strong farming tradition, enlightened land-laws encouraging small scale enterprises, its development of environmentally sensitive initiatives such as LIVE, and rigorous insistence on standards in vine-farming and winemaking.
We stand united
Oregon is home to a highly unified, friendly and supportive producer network. I would go further – in my experience, Oregon presents the most united front of any wine country or region in the world in terms of sharing and problem-solving. Oregon has excellent ground rules and exacting standards, set up clearly to produce quality wine. The producers, who, by and large are extremely articulate, share the same objectives, are persuasive advocates for their home territory and contribute materially to events such as IPNC, ¡Salud! and Oregon Pinot Camp, which celebrate their state’s wine culture.
So, Oregon is classically invested in Pinot Noir and propagating the notion that the state possesses the perfect climate and terroir for the articulation of this grape. As strong as this foundation is for a thriving wine culture, there are several young vignerons who are energetically challenging orthodoxies. With little or no capital, having to farm or trade services for fruit and share small facilities, whilst pursuing their particular passions, they are perhaps the new pioneers.
It’s not all about Pinot
Some of them even view Oregon’s affair with Pinot Noir as a kind of accidental relationship rather than an historical inevitability. Whereas the message about Oregon has always been (and still is) Pinot, Pinot and more Pinot (and throw in some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris for light contrast), there is perhaps too much concentration on one grape variety, almost to the exclusion of others (over 70 grape varieties are grown in Oregon, but you wouldn’t really know it).
As Jeff Vejr of Golden Cluster Wines writes: “Some would like to change the perception of Oregon wine. It is about much, much, much more than just Pinot Noir. For us, the story is deeper – and more inclusive. The tide is turning with some very exciting burgeoning projects. One day, Oregon will be known as more than just being a one-trick-pony.”
Some growers do not set out to break with the mainstream, but by virtue of what they do in their vineyards and wineries, have established a reputation for making wines which are notably different in style. These growers focus on the unique voice of their vineyard, which they capture, primarily, by means of sensitive farming.
The approach in the winery is aimed at discovering nuance rather than imposing intensity. Native ferments, dialling down the oak, using stems (whole clusters) to give freshness and not over-extracting (no pump-overs nor long macerations) allow for a kind of complex drinkability and the subtle, yet transparent, expression of terroir and vintage.
That is the charm of Pinot: that it wears many guises and mediates the complex nature of the immediate vineyard environment, the soils, and the particular nature of the vintage. Purity is a complex thing. Growers such as Kelley Fox understand this; her wines are testament to the vineyards she works with. Other estates, where wine is being made with a lighter touch, include Eyrie Vineyards, Cristom and White Rose.
Oregon’s “revolutionaries” often draw their inspiration from other countries, regions, and producers and styles of wines they love to drink. They believe that Oregon has the potential to make wines with far greater stylistic diversity.
Some of these: Chad Stock, John House, Bow & Arrow, Joe Swick, Beckham Estate, Hiyu, Statera Cellars, Analemma, Johan Vineyards, Faux-Piste, Division Wine Company were amongst 28 growers who put together an artisan wine fair in Portland in 2017 called Oregon Now, a mixture of urban wineries, micro-projects and alternative approaches to wine.
These new-wave producers experiment with unusual grapes and clones, different terroirs, natural ferments, vessels such as concrete tanks, cement eggs, puncheons, foudres, amphorae, acacia casks, styles such as skin contact/orange, flor-ageing, co-ferments and pet nats. They are curious rather than dogmatic, but their wines are attracting and inspiring a new drinking audience, one that is less preoccupied with brand Oregon and is more excited by what is in the bottle.
A mature, healthy wine culture will be proud of its origins, its history and the strength of its wine community, whilst being prepared to embrace the energy and ideas of a new generation of growers. Oregon can always celebrate its Pinot Noirs and tell the story of its different terroirs; it should also celebrate the growers who believe that Oregon has the potential to make other equally convincing and world-class wines.
- Doug Wregg will be talking about “Exploring Oregon’s Winemaking Classicists and (R)Evolutionaries” with Kate Norris of Division Winemaking Company between 3pm and 5pm on March 12 at Level 2, Oxo 2, Oxo Tower Wharf, London as part of two days of talks and sessions to highlight the diversity and opportunity for Oregon and Washington wines in the UK.
- The full programme of events includes:
- March 13
- 11am, Oregon Seminar for MW Seminar for MWs and MW Students
- 3pm, Oregon Seminar ‘“Exploring Oregon’s Winemaking Classicists and (R)Evolutionaries”
- 11am to 5pm, Oregon ‘Pop Up’ tastings: Oregon Chardonnay and Non-Pinot noir Reds
- 6 to 8.30pm, ‘Magnum Opus’ – Invite Only
- 9pm til late, ‘Secret Sommelier’ tasting – Invite Only
- 10.30am, Washington Seminar ‘The Evolution of Washington reds’, chaired by Richard Hemming MW
- Noon to 5pm, Oregon & Washington Main Tasting
All sessions are on a first come, first served basis, but you can register for the overall events here. For further information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and you can register for all sessions here.