The Noble Writ's Under-$20 Oregon Pinot Noir Shootout

Apr 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm
Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.

In just about any wine store, and even in many grocery stores, the pinot noir selection seems to keep growing and growing. Frankly, I thought there would be a plateau and then perhaps a fall as we got further removed in time from The Movie, but there are few signs of things slowing down.

I'm actually happy about that: Pinot noir can be an incredibly tasty, food-friendly wine. For many people, though, it has flown under the radar, hampered by myths about it being "difficult" to grow, and, at least with respect to red Burgundy, "difficult" to understand.

If forced to drink pinot noir from only one place, I would choose red Burgundy, but I've had plenty of fine pinot noirs from the United States. Of these, I've had much better luck with wines from Oregon than from California.

click to enlarge Pinot noir grapes - Olivier Vanpé, Wikimedia Commons
Olivier Vanpé, Wikimedia Commons
Pinot noir grapes
Oregon's cooler climate leads to fruit that ripens with less sugar and more acidity. While some California vineyards manage this trick, their wines are not showing up in bottles priced in the teens, but in expensive single-vineyard bottlings from top producers. Pinot noirs from Oregon manage these qualities even in wines that carry only the broad "Oregon" designation on the label, which means the grapes can come from anywhere in the state, rather than just from a particular region or vineyard.

Oregon pinot noir also tends to carry earthy flavors, while these seem absent from examples made in California. (Or perhaps these flavors are simply covered by the intensity of the fruit.) Whether these earthy flavors are the Oregon terroir expressing itself or not is too early for me to tell. Regardless, I enjoy them, and they make Oregon my second favorite region for pinot noir behind Burgundy.

click to enlarge The challengers - Dave Nelson
Dave Nelson
The challengers
Recently, a proliferation of relatively inexpensive bottlings from Oregon has popped up in local wine stores. Despite my own esoteric, off-beat preferences, I remain a sucker for a bargain -- or at least a perceived bargain -- and I am particularly weak when it comes to pinot noir. I hold out hope of finding something delicious and distinctive that I can buy in quantity.

When I noticed that a number of these releases were all from the 2007 vintage, and that all closed with screwcaps, thus making the playing field relatively level, I grabbed three to sample from the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton.

I started with the 2007 Wine by Joe Pinot Noir Oregon. I've seen several wines from this producer around, but never sampled them before. The label seemed gimmicky and made me wonder whether the wine would deliver or not, but the juice was quite good. It's a light ruby in the glass. It has a relatively modest nose, with subtle red fruit flavors and a touch of spice. It was more full and complex in the mouth, with decent length. There is good pinot noir character here, but I don't really get any of the earthy notes that I love in Oregon pinot noir. It held up decently on day two, with some tannic structure making itself apparent, and the fruit taking on a slightly confected quality. Perhaps this bottle could actually do with a little time in the cellar.

Next was the 2007 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon. A to Z was founded in 2002, so it's a relative newcomer, but it has grown quickly to become Oregon's largest winery. The color is a bit darker than the Wine by Joe. Black cherry leads the nose, with a good dose of spice, and a touch of wet clay earthiness. It's very nicely structured in the mouth. The fruit is richer than the Wine by Joe, but there is enough acidity to provide balance. Very nice length on the finish, and just as tasty on day two. A beautiful wine all around that really seemed to speak of Oregon. This was my favorite of the three wines I sampled.

Finally, the 2007 Erath Pinot Noir Oregon. This is an old estate by Oregon standards, founded in 1967, but it was sold to Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the producer of the popular Columbia Crest label, in 2006. This wine was the lightest of the three -- it looked like a dark rosé as much as a red wine. Over the years, I've had many a pale pinot noir that brought plenty of intense aromatics and tastes. Unfortunately, this bottle was not one of those. The nose here was very light -- some raspberry notes, with a hint of earth. It smelled a lot like a modest Bourgogne Rouge, but with the volume turned down. It was very slim and elegant in the mouth. There are decent flavors here, but they are simply too light for me. I was hoping that additional air would open up the wine, but it was essentially unchanged on the second day.

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of these wines. They are a definite step up from the $10-$12 domestic pinot noirs, and even the Erath made a decent dinner companion. That being said, the only one I would probably rebuy for myself is the A to Z Wineworks.

I did notice that two small California-based producers of pinot noir, Loring Wine Company and Siduri, also now have regional Oregon bottlings in the St. Louis market that are both in the under-$20 price point and closed with screwcaps. I've not been a big fan of the wines I've sampled from these producers, but those have been their higher end, single vineyard offerings. Their Oregon bottles are probably worth a shot if you aren't averse to encountering a bigger expression of pinot noir.