Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Checking in with Oregon’s Wine Country

Oregon Pinot Noirs are now considered world class wines. As in Burgundy, this fickle grape can show dramatic youngberg-hill-viny-1-09bvariations between vintages due to changeable climate and the style each winemaker wants to express. I like to go to Oregon every year to see what’s happening on the ground level.
 
The North Willamette Valley displayed it’s famously cool, moist atmosphere a few weeks ago. We headed North in a small airplane, replacing the sunny 65 degree Bay Area for 40 degrees and fog in McMinnville. Forty percent of Oregon’s substantial wine industry is focused on growing Pinot Noir from the northern Willamette Valley and it is the best known of Oregon’s wine growing areas. 
 
Climate variations influence vineyards in Oregon more than in California or Washington. The Willamette Valley starts 35 miles south of Portland and  has a marine-influenced climate. Wet, cool weather at inconvenient times during the growing or harvest cycle greatly affects grapes.
 
California and Eastern Washington, with their reliably hot climates, produce brawny (sometimes overly ripe) wines. Oregon has the opposite issue. Some Oregon harvests have barely enough sun and dry weather to ripen grapes. It is in those cooler years that Oregon winemakers are challenged to balance a firm acidity with enough ripe fruit flavors to produce lean, elegant style wines.
 
2007 was such a year. We kept hearing the same phrase: 2007 produced real “Oregon Pinots”, unlike the “California style Pinots” that came from the hotter conditions of 2006. Those that we tasted show considerably lighter body than the 2006 vintage. Many we tasted were a bit thin when used as a sipping wine. Their delicate, fragrant fruit with refreshing acidity means this vintage shines favorably when paired  with medium weight foods such as local salmon, mushrooms and fresh goat’s cheese. Long-time Oregon winemakers who have experience with other cool weather years seemed to be able to coax the most fruit flavors from the vintage.
 
We asked locals how they thought the 2007 Pinots would do in the market place. “Some folks look for the elegant characteristics and lower alcohol levels of a leaner style. Others want a firmer, bigger wine like the 2006. If you can get an ’06 and an ’07 by the same winemaker from the same vineyard, you’d have the chance to see the wide spectrum of what Oregon can produce.”
 
Travel Notes:
 
North Willamette Valley is more rural than Napa/Sonoma. There aren’t a lot of great places to stay but the Youngberg Hill Vineyard and Inn is an elegant B. and B. on a working winery just south of McMinnville.
 
 The wineries close to Highway 99 can be as busy as California wineries in high season (May through October). For a more authentic, small producer experience the country town of Carleton is home to 30 wineries, many which have their own tasting rooms along the two-block main street.
 
Carlton also has The Horse Radish, a comfortable wine bar with a local cheese case for your mid-afternoon break.
 
The Valley has some fine, small restaurants dedicated to the bounty of Oregon culinary products. Try Bistro Maison in McMinnville, The Painted Lady in Newburg or Joel Palmer House in Dundee. Fun, always open and good for a respite from Wine Country cuisine is La Rambla in McMinville, a Spanish tapas and wine bar.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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