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Oregon making mark on wine map with pinot noir

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Willamette Valley
  • Pinot noir grapes, many from Willamette Valley, have made Oregon a major wine producer.
Oregon has become a tour de force on the global pinot noir scene. The state’s wine went from being an experiment in the mid-1960s to a viable product in the 1990s. Today, wine is a major industry in Oregon, and as pinot noir accounts for about two-thirds of the sales, it is largely responsible for putting our neighbor to the north on the winery map.

Many of the best early pioneers, such as Ponzi and Bethel Heights, continue to make great wines. However, the new kids on the block are making pinot noirs that have grabbed me of late. It is not just the quality that has caught my attention, but how they are being fashioned similarly to those made in the 1980s and 1990s, when pinot noir was respected for its subtleties.

Oregon, at least in the western regions where you find pinot noir, is cooler than California and harvesting occurs later in the year. While there have been warmer vintages, the trend toward making higher-alcohol-content wines, certainly in the past decade and starting in the late 1990s, cannot be explained by climate alone.

What makes Oregon pinot noir stand apart from California is its terroir, and wines that are riper mask it.

As the pendulum is swinging back, or at least coming to the middle, some of the new producers, who have been influenced by trends in other parts of the world, are applying a lighter touch, which is critical with this delicate grape. Here are three that are worthy of seeking out.

Matello Pinot Noir, Lazarus, 2011 (Willamette Valley, Ore.): Marcus Goodfellow started Matello in 2002 and it took a while to come into its own, but now it is definitely among the rising stars with a host of white wines, one syrah and several pinot noirs. Lazarus is composed of fruit from several Willamette Valley vineyards and it is a great representation of the area with spice, high-toned fruit and nuanced minerality. Suggested retail: $27

Division Winemaking Co. Pinot Noir, Un, 2011 (Willamette Valley): Tom and Kate Monroe, who met in San Francisco, were co-founders of the Southeast Wine Collective in Portlandia, which got off the ground in 2012, though their first vintage was 2009. Blended from vineyards in the Ribbon Ridge and Eola Hills American Viticultural Areas, Un, is light, bright and filled with juicy red fruits as well as a little spice. Suggested retail: $29

Vincent Wine Co. Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge Vineyard, 2012 (Willamette Valley): Another occupant of the Southeast Wine Collective, Vincent Wine Co. was founded in 2009 by Vincent Fritzsche. He worked at several other wineries before going solo and now makes one chardonnay and six pinot noirs. Although it was created to be an early drinking version of the Armstrong Vineyard bottling (which is the source for the fruit), it is noteworthy on its own with hints of herbal accented berry fruit. Suggested retail: $30

Some of these wines can be found at Bi-Rite Grocery, Haight Street Market, Ordinaire and K&L (Redwood City).

Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.