In early July, I was lucky enough to be invited to Oregon Pinot Camp. The camp is organised by the Oregon Wine Board and hosted annually in the Willamette (pronounced “˜WillA-met, rhyming with “˜dammit’ – as many t-shirts profess) Valley. It started in the last decade to help educate the trade in terms of Pinot Noir, the different soils and microclimates of the valley, vineyard management, different wine styles and even different varieties apart from Pinot Noir.
From the get go, one cannot mistake being in America. Colour coded buses picked up various participants. My hotel was part of the red bus. Each bus had a chant, though I can unequivocally state that I think ours was the best… Our crazy and outspoken bus leader shouted, “˜Red Bus!’ We reciprocated, “˜We’re hot!’. He responded, “˜How hot?!’ to which we replied. “˜Red hot!’. One can imagine the enthusiasm in this chant backed by a breakfast of Argyle sparkling wine, which is considered the best in the Valley, and orange juice (okay this part was probably more Oregonian than American). Further adornments of flame printed handkerchiefs and red streamers added fuel to our fire.
Despite the fun and frolicking, I could not help notice how beautiful the Willamette Valley is. It lies on the same parallel as Burgundy and fortunately for its wine has similar weather patterns and temperatures. Furthermore, its rolling hills and south facing slopes are also reminiscent of the Côte d’Or. This similarity could not have remained hidden for long and in the late 1960s, it was discovered by David Lett, a young recent graduate of UC Davis Enology Department. He was soon followed in the late 70s and 80s by numerous others including the Drouhin family of Burgundy.
Though it’s a newer viticultural area, they arguably have better soil analyses than most Old World regions. The soil generally falls into two categories : volcanic which produces a more feminine, smoky yet more fruit-driven style and the more ancient (marine) sedimentary which produces a more masculine, darker and spicier style that requires more aging. The same applies to clones for which they are world renowned experts.
Over the years, the region has become more established and in recognition of this, 6 AVAs or American Viticultural Areas have been recognized – Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton District, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills. Unlike the Côte d’Or, however, they are not all lined up pretty in a row. Rather, they are like Barolo scattered around in a larger circle which makes orientation difficult to follow.
Besides the overt kindness of the locals, the one remarkable thing that I came away with was how delicious the wines are. Generally speaking, they are the most like Burgundy that I have ever had, outside Burgundy of course. They are riper and more balanced in alcohol than most New Zealand Pinot Noirs and more restrained than many Australian and Sonoma Pinots.
Any Pinot fan knows that excellent Pinot Noir is hard to find. Like an opera diva, it is a demanding grape that usually makes prima donna requests and struggles to sing the terroir of the soil when not in ideal conditions. Over the last 10 years, Oregon has been trying to master all of its outbursts and their hard work (and patience) have been seriously paying off.
But all was not work I must add. We finished the camp with a refreshing Oregonian white water rafting trip that enlivened our Pinot-laden palates. Besides the capsize of one raft (not ours – we are the Red Bus), all went well and I was up for a more full-on experience.
I spent the last 5 days tasting my way through the Willamette Valley in search of the perfect Pinot Noirs for Goedhuis & Co (a success! watch this space) and trekking in my automatic car across the desert to Walla Walla, Washington to visit an old winemaker friend, Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards.
As far as I am aware, the only non-wine reference to this excellent yet relatively new viticultural area (half in Washington and half in Oregon) was in a Bug’s Bunny cartoon. Bugs certainly was a visionary as they produce some superb Syrahs, Bordeaux blends and Grenaches. I was also amazed by the quality of some of Walla Walla’s restaurants, particularly Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen and Whitehouse-Crawford. Incredible. They could give some restaurants in San Francisco, Paris and London a run for their money.
Oregon is a wine lover’s dream. The wines glorious, the land beautiful and the people are the friendliest you could ever meet. Even a moderately cynical UK comrade was not left untouched – a continuous wide smile prefaced a rhythmic chant of “˜I love this country. I love America’.