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Main squeeze
Pinot noir rises to the top of Oregonís barrel
BY DAVID MARGLIN

Pinot noir is the premier varietal grown in Oregon, but itís had a long and bumpy ride, and in many circles it is still a hard sell. I understand this, and I am here to help. That is, I am here to tell you that you must taste the recent releases of these wines to believe them. Because 1998 and 1999 were exceptional years for Oregon pinot noirs, and the 2000s in the barrel are tasting mighty good.

Oregon hasnít yet had 30 years of making fine wines. Its first real vineyards of note were planted in 1972 and 1973, when Dick Erath of Erath Vineyards and David Lett of Eyrie left California and planted grapes near the town of Dundee. They decided, as young, impetuous, and educated winemakers, that Oregon could make great Burgundian wines (pinot noir and chardonnay). And they were right. Oregon now has 175 wineries ó two and a half times as many as it did in 1990.

But not everyone swoons over Oregon, and with good reason. First, the weather usually does not conduce to great winemaking: itís not warm and sunny enough during flowering, and it tends to rain at harvest time. Moreover, the soil tends to be too rich in Oregonís main wine region, the Willamette Valley, which runs from Eugene to Portland (the other regions are the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys). Wine grapes like thinner soils, so the vine can go deeper and experience more stress. So Oregon has had many mediocre vintages recently.

Even in decent years, you need " game " to make great wines. While " game " relies on talent, it also requires ample capital, which many Oregon wineries lack (unlike their Napa Valley competitors). So with less money than they need, and not such great weather ó and with Oregon already kind of a rogue state, off the beaten track ó when it comes time to sell the wines beyond the West Coast, it isnít easy.

Another problem lies in the nature of pinot noir itself. A delicate and difficult grape, it can make the greatest wines, but it is very easy to make mistakes. Most pinot noirs have at least three lives after release. First, a young, fruity phase, when the wine is brash, tart, seductive, yet gangly ó like a Lolita, but legal to enjoy. In its second phase, the wine goes dumb. You smell the barnyard, and the fruit gets buried under the tea, resulting in fairly subdued and unapproachable wines. This awkward phase can set in anywhere from three to six years from its vintage year, and can last for four to eight years. Then, either the wine dies a not-so-graceful death, or it opens up and becomes a mature and elegant lady, seductive, with soft texture and ample complexity, plus some glints of the fruit of its youth. If you catch a wine in its dumb phase, it wonít do much for you.

The economics of wine have pretty much forced wineries to produce wines that taste great right out of the gate. The winery has to move the product, and you cannot sell wines that do not appeal to most consumers. In their young and fruity phase, pinot noirs can be unreliable whippersnappers; but when well-made and built for early consumption, they will rock your world. Mark these words: young, classy pinot noirs are the most versatile red wines made. Period.

Back to Oregon. The handful of California refugees who came north to try their hand at making fine wines succeeded for the most part. Oregon now has a bona fide wine industry, and when the renowned Drouhin family of Burgundy bought land in Oregon and began to produce wonderful pinot noirs, it was " game on " time. In 1994, good weather came together with winemaking expertise, and a lot of world-class wine was produced. But many of these have not aged well, or they have yet to come out of their " dumb " phase (and may never do so). Thin production marked 1995 and 1997; long-lasting but hard-to-approach-early wines arrived in 1996.

But in 1998, though the crop was small, the pinot noirs for the most part have been stupendous. You get strawberry and bright cherry, a little cola, and lots of funk. Mossy banks, barnyard odors, the fungus, the snap, crackle, all sorts of exciting descriptors: the wines come alive in your mouth. And the 1999s were darned good, maybe even better ó at least thereís more of them. Itís hard to say, because both vintages are so good, with so many of the wines brimming with flavor.

The 2000s should be special, too. So right now, you have the right conditions to find excellent values: two (maybe three) great years in a row, and no one raising prices. Industry insiders are uncertain about these wines, but many know that they are the real deal. A lot of the 1998s have already sold to folks who donít care that Wine Spectator rarely gives any Oregon pinot noir more than 90 points. But youíll find some, and loads of those great 1999s. Some wineries I like are Foris (from the south), Bridgeview, Domaine Drouhin, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Ken Wright, Panther Creek, Cristom, Erath, Rex Hill, Golden Valley, Adelsheim, Sokol Blosser, and King Estate. I could go on.

If you like velvet and cherries and strawberries, youíll be blown away by the array of flavors in young Oregon pinots. If youíre eating tuna, sushi, a juicy steak, or barbecued chicken ó heck, even pork ó youíll agree that a fruity Oregon pinot noir is the perfect match. You want to give these wines a chance.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]phx.com

Issue Date: August 30 - September 6, 2001

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