As 2019 broke the spell of warm, dry vintages, James Suckling finds plenty of top-notch Pinot noirs on the Oregon wine trail, with chardonnays showing increasing diversity of style and character.
We went big in our tastings of Oregon wines this year, uncorking more than 800 bottles in our largest review of the state so far and finding plenty of evidence to substantiate its reputation for making consistently top-notch pinot noir, with a smaller but potentially even more impressive selection of chardonnay.
Antica Terra Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Antikythera 2018 again tops our ratings, showing an incredible complexity of aromas with a chalky, stony texture and layered, spicy character, and Antica Terra’s 2018 Ceras and 2018 Botanica also makes it into the top five of all the wines we’ve rated this year from Oregon.
“For me, the ’18s were so exciting,” says Maggie Harrison, the owner and winemaker of Antica Terra. She says 2018 was dry and warm, with consistency and a longer harvest, resulting in “much greater diversity of expression on the table” – as can be seen from her array of wines.
For Oregon winemakers, how to deal with warming temperatures has become a common theme. “Each year, I think we’re getting a little bit better at handling the heat,” says Tom Gerrie, owner and winemaker of Cristom. Cristom Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Eola-Amity Hills Jessie Vineyard 2018 is another wine in our top five of the report.
While it’s tempting to draw a parallel with Burgundy’s regional variations, such as Côte de Beaune vs Côte de Nuits, there are fewer general differences among the 10 Willamette Valley AVAs. But as a varietal sensitive to both terroir and winemaking, pinot noir expresses a unique personality based on a combination of differences in soil, elevation and microclimate, as well as clone, rootstock and vine age.
Gerrie says that from his perspective, the unique personalities of pinot noir derive more from the soil than from the other geographical elements of each individual AVA.
“Our deep volcanic soils are extremely bright and red-fruited, very high-toned, very floral,” he explains, with vines planted in the shallow, rocky soils under more stress, resulting in fruit that “can be dark and brooding, almost blue-fruited”. Fewer producers in Oregon focus on chardonnay, but those that do, such as 00 Wines, are making incredible whites. Its Chardonnay Willamette Valley Eola-Amity Hills Freya Hermann Cuvee 2018, which was among our top five wines, shows impressive texture and structure thanks to a focus on phenolic extraction, alongside an exquisite purity of fruit, with flinty and spicy elements.
“It was really never anyone’s focal point, because, of course, pinot noir has been the big story in Oregon since the very beginning,” Chris Hermann, the co-founder of 00 Wines, says of carving out a niche for chardonnay in the state’s wine scene.
Chardonnay comprised only 17 percent of our tastings, compared with two-thirds pinot noir, but out of our top 30 wines, 11 are chardonnay – more than double the average proportion. They show more diversity in style and character, with all of them expressing a sharp backbone of acidity thanks to the high diurnal temperature range across the state.
We also tasted some fresh whites from pinot gris, once Oregon’s signature white, but these failed to impress at just under 90 points on average. We tasted some zesty rieslings, too, at an average of just under 91 points, but saw more potential and consistency in Oregon’s sparkling wines. With their bright acidity, wines such as Domaine Serene Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve Brut NV show more freshness, minerality and refinement compared with Californian equivalents.
The region is still young, with producers gradually discovering the land and making more deliberate decisions regarding where best to plant vines, factoring in elevation and soil type. With most vines still in an early stage, there’s room to improve, and we hope that more Oregon producers can eventually unlock the potential for great chardonnay.
The Top 10 Oregon Wine Bottles
ANTICA TERRA PINOT NOIR EOLA-AMITY HILLS ANTIKYTHERA 2018
Wow. Aromas of blackberry, ripe strawberry, spice and smoke follow through to a full body with firm, minerally tannins that have a chalky, stony texture that gives it firmness and complexity. Very long and driven.
DOMAINE DROUHIN PINOT NOIR EOLAAMITY HILLS ROSEROCK ZÉPHIRINE 2019
Redcurrant, sour cherry and smoke on the nose. Layered and balanced, with a long, savoury finish. Very vertical and deep.
00 WINES CHARDONNAY WILLAMETTE VALLEY EOLA-AMITY HILLS FREYA HERMANN CUVÉE 2018
Striking aromas of sliced nectarine and white peach with flinty and spicy elements. Mouthwatering. The palate is impressively rich and pithy with good extract. Drink or hold.
ANTICA TERRA PINOT NOIR WILLAMETTE VALLEY BOTANICA 2018
This pinot proffers detail and textural nuance, as well as aromatic complexity and fresh flavour. Fresh yet ripe with fully resolved tannin maturity and seamless resolve. Drink or hold.
ANTICA TERRA PINOT NOIR WILLAMETTE VALLEY CERAS 2018
The palate is so smooth and so layered with a long arc of deep blue-fruit flavours holding seamlessly long. An exceptional Ceras. So long and seamless. Drink or hold.
00 WINES CHARDONNAY CHEHALEM MOUNTAINS KATHRYN HERMANN CUVÉE 2018
The palate is striking for the concentration and fleshy build, as well as the way it maintains focus and holds the finish. A great chardonnay, every way you look at it. Drink or hold.
DOMAINE SERENE CHARDONNAY DUNDEE HILLS RÉCOLTE GRAND CRU 2017
The pinnacle of chardonnay for this producer, it outguns the rest of the stable for sheer concentration and power. Complex and vibrant all at once.
CRISTOM PINOT NOIR WILLAMETTE VALLEY EOLA-AMITY HILLS JESSIE VINEYARD 2018
This dramatically steep site delivers a wine of real personality and distinctiveness. The star of 2018 at Cristom and, indeed, for Willamette Valley pinot per see.
BERGSTRÖM PINOT NOIR EOLA-AMITY HILLS TEMPERANCE HILL VINEYARD 2019
A very spicy expression of pinot, this has so much to say on the nose. Fascinating pinot.
SOTER PINOT NOIR YAMHILL-CARLTON MINERAL SPRINGS RANCH 2018
This has such ripe redcherry pinot fruit aromas, as well as forest wood and a swathe of deep-set spices. The palate carries such plush red and darkcherry flavours in a long, fresh and energetic mode. Commanding pinot with such impressive poise. Drink or hold.
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