Pinot Noir is the prized grape of Burgundy but it has also laid its stake in the Willamette Valley. Grapes have been farmed in Oregon since the early 1800’s. It was not until 1965 when David Lett and his wife Diana of Eyrie Vineyards planted their Pinot Noir vines on a carefully chosen south-facing slope in the Dundee Hills, that Pinot Noir began to emerge as the variety of choice for this new up and coming region. Shortly thereafter, several prominent pioneering families came to recognize the Willamette Valley as the premier terroir for growing Pinot Noir.
Fast forward some 50 years and history proved these pioneers correct. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is internationally recognized as some of the best in the world. It was not an easy journey. The first success came in 1979, during the Olympics of Wine in Paris, when a Yamhill County Pinot Noir from The Eyrie Vineyards placed third in a blind tasting alongside some of the world’s finest Pinot Noirs.
1983 was a stellar vintage for Pinot in Oregon. In 1985, the 1983 Pinots Noirs from Oregon were blind tasted in New York City amongst some of the best from Burgundy. Oregon clearly was the star of the tasting and faith and respect for Oregon Pinot Noir was on the rise.
Following these tasting there was rapid growth in Oregon wine country, as many new producers flocked to the region. A key turning point came in 1986, when Véronique Drouhin worked harvest at several wineries in Oregon, and later in 1987 Robert Drouhin(her father) purchased vineyards in Dundee Hills. The first wines by Robert Drouhin were made in 1987 by his daughter Véronique.
In the late 80’s, the esteemed wine critic, Robert Parker purchased a vineyard and made his first wines in 1991, known as Beaux Frères. Willamette Valley has continued to see steady growth, and its reputation has been on the rise. Today, outside of Burgundy, Pinot Noir has found a second home in the Willamette Valley. There are over 600 wineries in 18 wine-growing regions, that are producing world-class Pinot Noirs. Distinguishing itself from California, Oregon Pinot Noirs are elegant, subtle and have high acidity.
There has been tremendous growth not just with the wineries but also in the hospitality industry with stellar restaurants and delightful hotels, inns and spas. Willamette Valley has become a destination for Pinot Noir lovers.
Fourth Annual Auction Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir will be taking center stage this April for Willamette Valley’s Fourth Annual Pinot Noir Auction, held at The Allison Inn, Newberg, Oregon. This exciting event will take place on April 5th & 6th.
The Pinot Noir Auction is hosted by 86 Willamette Valley Wine Association members. It will be a celebratory event with top wine trade and media participating over two days, with seminars, dinners, auction and gala events. The wines are extremely special and not available anywhere else in the world. In the small Willamette Valley, there is a range of expression of Pinot Noir and this auction will highlight the many variations and styles.
The auction will feature 92 lots of wine produced exclusively for this event, all with 2017 vintage, considered to be a classic vintage. There will be 86 lots of Pinot Noir. In addition there will be 6 unique lots of Chardonnay made by past and present auction chairs, in collaboration with winemakers from the region.
Willamette Valley is a unique, beautiful and special place. The Pinot Noir Auction will be something unique and something special. It’s an opportunity to celebrate Willamette Valley and its exceptional world class Pinot Noirs.
Shirley Brooks, VP of Sales and Marketing for Elk Cove Vineyards and Eugenia Keegan, Oregon General Manager for the Jackson Family Wines are the Co-Chairs for this years Pinot Noir Auction. They both presented a seminar of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs to members of the press at Riverpark in New York City. The tasting included vintages from 2011 to 2016, featuring past auction wines. The tasting was an exclusive event, as these wines are auction wines and not sold to the general public. The wines were made specifically for the auction and are one of kind, representing the collaborative spirit of the Willamette Valley.
What separates Oregon wines from its California counterpart is the soil. When you talk about Oregon you have to talk about soil. Much of Oregon is about the dirt. You cannot talk about the wines without talking about the dirt. Shirley joking says “The wines we are tasting are dirty Pinot Noirs with a foul mouth and New York Attitude.” And having tasted these wines, I emphatically concur.
Eugenia Keegan stressed that “The regions cool climate and complex soils are uniquely suited for growing world-class Pinot Noir. We tasted through 1 Rose, 6 Pinot Noirs, and 1 Chardonnays. Tasting six vertical vintages allowed us to capture the vintage variation of the region, the ageability of the wines, and the winemaking skills of the region. Willamette Valley is unique in that 70% of wineries are making small production wines, with under 5000 cases and a good number of them are direct to consumer only.
The seminar kicked off with a fun wine from Big Table Farms Laughing Pig Rosé. The Rosé was quite possible one of my favorites, perfect even on a cold(-15° F), brisk, winter day in NYC. Big Table Farm is a classic example of a small producer making exceptional wines in the Willamette Valley. The wine is made by husband and wife team of Brian Marcy and Clare Carver. Brian being the winemaker and Claire is the creative genius behind the fun labels.
The first wine up for the formal seminar was the 2011 Elk Cove Vineyards Mt. Richmond Pinot Noir. Elk Cove is family operated and was one of the founding pioneers of the Willamette Valley. It was a unique vintage marked by high acidity. Mount Richmond sits at 300-500 feet elevation which allows for earlier ripening. This is an exceptional cool climate wine that can rival the best in the world.
Next up was the 2012 Penner-Ash Wine Cellars Hyland Vineyard Pinot Noir. Hyland Vineyard is one of Oregon’s largest and oldest vineyards. The winery was founded in 1988 by husband and wife team Ron and Lynn Penner-Ash. Penner-Ash Wine Cellars embodies the spirit and passion of a boutique producer specializing in Pinot Noir. This was an exceptional wine that is vibrant and focused with notes of red currant and cranberries.
The 2013 Soléna Estate Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir was my favorite wine of the tasting. Made by the talented Laurent Montalieu. He launched Solena in 2002 with his wife Danielle. The wine is elegant, expressive and practically dances out of the glasses. The Pinot has great concentration, with brilliant red and black fruit with impressive tannins.
The next three wines were actual auction lots in the prior years. The 2014 Argyle Winery “Lone Star” Pinot Noir was an auction lot wine. Argyle is known as a sparkling wine house, founded on the belief that the cool-climate of Oregon’s Willamette Valley was ideal for producing sparkling wines that could stand alongside the great wines of Champagne. The Lone Star Vineyard is southeast facing capturing all the early morning sunlight leading to an elegantly concentrated Pinot Noir.
The fifth wine we tasted was 2015 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Roserock “The Auction Cuvée” Pinot Noir. The 2015 vintage was a stellar season for Oregon. I was excited to try this wine as it is a wine known to have French soul and Oregon soil. The Drouhin family were the first Burgundian family to make wine in Willamette Valley. The nose had notes of black fruit and exotic spice. On the palate the wine was soft and velvety with fruit flavors and distinct floral notes. The wine has a powerful yet elegant tannic structure.
The 2016 Gran Moraine Winery “Terminal Moraine” Pinot Noir was the last of the reds we tasted. The wine is a true expression of the vintage, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, and the culture of Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley. 2016 was a generous vintage, with aromas of black cherries, plum and spice. Notes of black cherries and spice exude from the glass. Nice notes of black cherry and black pepper. Exceptionally balanced with nice soft tannins, bright acidity and long memorable finish.
The last wine we tasted was a special and rare treat. The Chardonnay lots for the auction are made by the auction chair. The auction chair then chooses to collaborate with a winemaker of choice. We tasted the 2016 “The Pioneer and The Punk” Chardonnay. This wine is rare of the rare, a joint venture of which only five cases of Chardonnay from Willamette Valley’s smallest and most sought after AVA, the Ribbon Ridge. Bergström and Adelsheim are neighbors and friends. Both are Oregon Chardonnay champions and have teamed up to produce a Chardonnay that bring the best of their two Ribbon Ridge estates together for one time only. History in a bottle as they call it.
Chardonnay has had many ups and down in its history in Willamette Valley, but today it is coming to the forefront and this Chardonnay is best in class. The Pioneer and Punk is a beautiful example of the wonderful evolution of Chardonnay in the region. Lovely notes of lemon curd and brioche envelop the palate. Great texture and bright acidity are especially notable. A rare, unique and special wine.
More on The Pinot Noir Auction
Shirley and Eugenia gave us a sneak peek of the upcoming collaboration. Shirley will be presenting a collaboration with of three wineries, cleverly calling it “Three’s Company”, a collaborative Chardonnay with Elk Cove, Sokol Blosser and Ponzi, all founding winemakers of Willamette, and all now in their second generation.
Eugenia will be presenting a Chardonnay from Gran Moraine working in collaboration with Eyrie(founding pioneer of Willamette). Both Shirley and Eugenia even hinted there maybe some sparkling surprises in the future too.
2017 is an exciting vintage for Pinot Noir. It was a much more classic vintage with a premier expression. 2017 is a beautiful elegant vintage.
At Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Auction you will personally experience the community and collaboration of the region.