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Oregon's Chehalem Mountains: A New Refuge from Pinot Mediocrity
By Michael Franz
Jan 23, 2007
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Pinot Noir is widely regarded as the preeminent red grape for making wines that covey a sense of place.  When well crafted by a winemaker with a deft hand, Pinot Noir is uniquely capable of transmitting intricate nuances regarding the climate and soils of the place in which it was grown.

There is, however, a downside to Pinot's supreme "transparency."  Pinot Noir says a lot about the place in which it was grown, but usually the specific message it conveys is:  "I came from a place that isn't very good for growing Pinot Noir."

The world has gone mad for Pinot in the present, "post-Sideways Era," but the sad truth is that majority of the wines found on the market today fall into one of two lamentable categories:

• chunky, obvious, overtly sweet, chronically over-ripe (or prematurely ripe) Pinots from New World regions like California or Australia's Yarra Valley;
• thin, charmless, astringent, under-ripe Pinots from second-rate Burgundy appellations such as Côte de Beaune Villages, Côte de Nuits Villages, Haut-Côtes de Beaune or Nuits, straight Bourgogne rouge, or Village wines from particular communes like Nuits-St.-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, etc.

Although these two categories cover most of the world's Pinots, they are not quite exhaustive of the renditions of Pinot Noir that you'll find on a sweep through wine shops or restaurants.  A truly comprehensive rundown would also include two much smaller categories:

• balanced, detailed red Burgundies from top producers working Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyards in great Bugundian communes such as Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle-Musigny, Pommard or Volnay, which can only be afforded on a regular basis by rock stars or those living off massive trust funds;
• balanced, detailed Pinot Noirs from top producers in Oregon, New Zealand, and a few cool spots in California.

If you have an interest in Pinots that offer a sense of place that isn't misplaced, you've got few options unless you are loaded with cash. Oregon has been among those few options for more than a decade now, but recently it has strengthened its position by tightening the relationship between many of its Pinots and their appellations of origin.

Last month, on December 27 (which happens to have been the 20th anniversary of my insane love affair with wine), a new appellation (or AVA, American Viticultural Area) was granted for the Chehalem Mountains by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB).

The Chehalem Mountains AVA is the sixth to have been granted since 2004 in response to concerted efforts by vintners in the northern Willamette Valley.  The other five AVAs are Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton (granted in in 2004), Ribbon Ridge and McMinnville (granted in 2005), and Eola-Amity Hills, which was granted earlier in 2006.

Who cares?  Anybody who wants to be part of the ongoing process of understanding the varied expressions of Pinot Noir arising from the distinctly different growing conditions in the northern Willamette Valley, which is indisputably one of the world's great Pinot terroirs.

The significance of the newly enhanced precision of Oregon's regions is well expressed by veteran Pinot producer and Oregon industry leader David Adelsheim:  "Until now, we have only been able to list the Willamette Valley as our origin, but the sprawling Valley [150 miles long] has hugely diverse growing conditions, which result in significantly wines.  We are very pleased that we can now pinpoint where the grapes are grown on our labels.  It's an important step in educating consumers on our exceptional region and the characteristics suggested in a wine from the Chehalem Mountains."

The new AVA is quite large, encompassing over 68,000 acres, of which a little more than 1,600 are under vine.  Within the boundaries of Chehalem Mountains are 31 wineries and over 100 vineyards, as well as the entire Ribbon Ridge AVA.

When awarding AVA status to petitioners, the TTB does not consider the qualities of finished wines, but it does require that a proposed region be shown to be distinct from neighboring areas in viticultural terms.  Chehalem Mountains' claim to distinctiveness was not based on its soils (typed as sedimentary, loess, basaltic and alluvial), which the petitioners concede are shared by adjacent areas.  The successful claim for distinctiveness was based, rather, on terrain, elevation and climate.

The terrain of the AVA is--as its name would suggest--much more sharply sloped than the Willamette Valley floor, which is virtually flat.  The elevation of the region is likewise notably higher, and indeed the boundary line at many points was set at 200 feet, with lower-lying acreage being excluded.  In climatic terms, the AVA is wetter than the valley floor (though most of the annual precipitation falls during winter, when the vines are dormant), and more varied in temperature, with ripening times differing by up to three full weeks from one spot to another.

Since the Chehalem Mountains AVA is larger and less densely planted than Ribbon Ridge or the Dundee Hills, it will take far longer for us to get a fix on the particular stylistic profile of its Pinot Noirs (if indeed a single profile exists, which seems doubtful).  For the moment, vine age and winemaking technique are almost certainly leaving a more prominent imprint on particular wines than terroir, though these variables are likely to smooth out over time.

One can find relatively light, fresh, red fruit-based Pinots as well as dense, dark, intense ones made from Chehalem Mountains fruit, so it would clearly be premature to pigeonhole the region.  I don't see this as a shortcoming.  It would take a lot of fun out of our tasting "research" if we could already pigeonhole the region's wine.  Similarly, though some terroir dogmatists might suggest that awarding an AVA prior to the establishment of a stylistic profile is placing the cart before the horse, but I'd reply that we'd be unlikely ever to discern a particular profile if labels didn't identify wines as having been sourced from relatively circumscribed areas.

I, for one, welcome the new AVAs, and look forward to seeing how relationships between place and performance pan out over time.  Top Pinots purportedly sourced from the region's fruit (though labeled prior to the awarding of the AVA) appear in order of preference below, but you should also be aware that the Chehalem Mountains turn out some superb Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, some of which I'll soon review on WRO:

Adelsheim, Ribbon Ridge (Oregon) Ribbon Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($45): This was my clear favorite of the three Adelsheim wines considered for this column, which were tasted blind along with nearly all with almost all of the entire set reviewed here.  The Bryan Creek offered more structure and grip, and the Calkins Lane was more open and fruity, but this Ribbon Springs Vineyard bottling offered plenty of fruit and excellent structure with more depth, concentration, and complexity than its stablemates.  Specific notes include both red and black fruits accented with nice oak notes that show both spicy and smoky notes.  The texture is very appealing thanks to excellent wood integration and very fine-grained tannins, making for a wine that is already enjoyable but clearly capable of positive development for years to come.  92

Ponzi, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir Reserve 2004 ($50):  This supremely classy wine is an object lesson in Oregon's ability to hit higher highs with Pinot Noir than almost anywhere else on the planet.  A model of delicacy and restraint, with moderately deep color and relatively light body, it nevertheless proves thoroughly satisfying on the strength of deeply flavored black cherry fruit that is enveloped in accents of toast, woodsmoke, mushrooms, fresh meat and subtle spices.  The fruit is supported with measured portions of acidity, tannin and wood, and the whole package is beautifully symmetrical.  Few wines outside of Burgundy ever provide this level of delicate intricacy.  92

Chehalem, Chehalem Mountains (Oregon) Corral Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir 2005 ($44):  Very pretty and poised, this wine nevertheless proves deep and flavorful once permitted a few minutes to unwind in the glass.  It is a bit darker in color and more substantial in flavor than the 2004 release of this same wine, which is priced $5 lower.  The 2005 is nevertheless the pick of the pair, showing open, vibrant red cherry fruit with accents of ripe strawberries and very, very subtle wood.  The tannins are ripe and extremely fine in grain, providing textural framing for the fruit without hardening or shortening the flavors.  Focus, sweet, and persistent in flavor, this is a beauty.  91

Rex Hill, Oregon (United States) Jacob-Hart Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 ($50):  It is certainly possible that a better wine from Rex Hill managed to fly under my radar in a past vintage, but I've sure never tasted one as complete and complex as this one looks at this early stage in its development.  Light and fresh but amply flavored, it is marked by beautiful red fruit notes with nice little complexities and superbly balanced wood and tannin.  91

Adelsheim, Chehalem Mountains (Oregon) Calkins Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($45):  This was among the more concentrated and structured wines of this group as a whole, but the most open and immediately fruity of the 2005 Adelsheim single-vineyard wines.  The fruit is based as much on black as red cherry notes, but the wine's core is still open and expressive, with nice light tannins and restrained wood that lends nice little nuances of spices and smoke without intruding on the purity of the core experience.  90

Le Cadeau Vineyard, Wilamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir "Rocheux" 2004 ($46):  The three bottlings reviewed here were my first tastes of the work of this producer, which, quick interestingly, makes different cuvées in consultation with noted Oregonian vintners.  This one involved Harry Peterson-Nedry and the winemaking team from Chehalem Winery, and it is narrowly my favorite of the three.  Its great is purity of fruit and restraint in terms of wood treatment, which permits lots of little nuances to shine through at once, with no particular signal stealing the show.  With plenty of time for aeration and study, you'll find lots of little spice and fruit notes in your glass, with both red and black fruits and subtle notes of smoke, toasted bread, mushrooms and black tea.  90

Le Cadeau Vineyard, Wilamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir "Côte Est" 2004 ($46):  The three bottlings reviewed here were my first tastes of the work of this producer, which, quick interestingly, makes different cuvées in consultation with noted Oregonian vintners.  This one involved the winemaking team at Bergstrom Winery, and its principal virtue is deep fruit set off against strong, spicy oak that somehow doesn't overwhelm the wine despite its serious assertiveness.  You'd be well advised to open this an hour before digging in in earnest, at which point you'll be rewarded with a wine that is moderately rich but quite impressively heady, with ripe notes that recall ripe strawberries doused in cherry liqueur and garnished with spices.  Tasted multiple times over the course of two days, I kept coming back to the rather uncomfortable view that, while it is slightly lacking in restraint, there is something undeniably sinful and vaguely erotic about this wine.  Make of that what you will, but it deserves your attention.  89

Vidon Vineyard, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir "Mirabelle Reserve" 2005 ($48):  This is an impressive wine with real depth and guts, but also notable elegance.  Thankfully, the fruitiness isn't purchased at the price of overt sweetness, just as the gutsiness doesn't entail a hard, over-extracted edge.  Also impressive is the fact that fruit notes aren't all there is to the wine, as a faintly earthy, mushroomy characterthat lends interest without seeming unstable or dirty.  89

Adelsheim, Chehalem Mountains (Oregon) Bryan Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($45):  My sample of this wine was very structured and tight when tasted in mid-January of 2007, with dark cherry fruit notes that were appealing but not as expressive as they might be, and almost surely not as appealing as they will become in a few months.  The structural elements that make the wine seem closed are likely to give way, as they are grape-based acidity and tannin rather than technical elements drawn from wood  or excessive maceration.  This is a good bet for ageing.  88

Gypsy Dancer (Oregon) Gary & Christine's Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($37):  I though this wine far superior to Gypsy Dancer's high-end 'Cuvée Romy' 2005, which rings up at $90 and comes in a massive bottle with a commensurately massive dose of oak.  This bottling shows more dimension and is far more versatile, with lovely fruit that offers both red and black notes as well as excellent balance and sensible structure.  88

Le Cadeau Vineyard, Wilamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir "Diversité" 2004 ($46):  The three bottlings reviewed here were my first tastes of the work of this producer, which, quick interestingly, makes different cuvées in consultation with noted Oregonian vintners.  This one involved Cheryl Francis and Sam Tannahill, and though I believe that it might round out to be as good a wine as its 2004 counterpart bottlings, I'm currently hedging on account of a slightly funky note that makes me wonder what really fine cherries and strawberries might be like right after they got out of the gym.  (If I had a better way of conveying the sensation, I'd have used it, so please pardon my shortcomings of expression for this indelicacy.)  I, for one, really like the wine, but I'm less sure that the faint of heart will share my enthusiasm about this as opposed to the other current releases from Le Cadeau.  88

Anam Cara Cellars, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Nicholas Estate Pinot Noir 2005 ($32): My sample of this wine showed a little bit of funkiness that blew off after 20 minutes to reveal a tender, fruity, juicy, delicious wine with enough structure to develop additional complexities with another few years of ageing.  It is already very tasty, though, and with its light/medium body, will work well with a wide range of foods.  86