I’m a lucky guy. I get to travel and taste Pinot Noirs with my good friends the Hurleys, proprietors of Wine Factor. We’ve spent the last decade traipsing around California, visiting
wineries large and small, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of what a
good Pinot Noir tastes like. A California Pinot Noir, that is. Then Pat Hurley turned me on to a Coeur de Terre 2009 Estate Pinot Noir and my whole world changed. That’s a great Pinot! And it didn’t taste a lot like the rich California Pinot Noirs I’d been drinking. What I knew about Oregon Pinot Noirs could be written on the end of a cork. I found out that the Willamette Valley produces Pinot Noirs in the Burgundian style, which means dryer, more acidic, less sugar, and less alcohol than your average big bomb Russian River or central California Pinot Noirs. These are wines with finesse, with layers of delicate flavors of cherry, wood spices, and minerals.
So we planned a trip to the Willamette Valley to taste real Oregon Pinot Noirs. Getting there was easy. A quick hop on Alaska Airlines and we were there in a couple of hours, rented a car, and in less than an hour we were deep in Pinot Noir country, the Willamette Valley AVA. After sampling about 40 different Pinots from 12 different wineries in the Willamette Valley, I was impressed. The 2010 Pinots are just starting to drink well, in my opinion. The 2011 and 2012 vintages showed great promise, but were still young. These wines are only 12.5% to 14% ABV (alcohol by volume), mostly closer to 13%. Compare that to a popular “drink now” California Pinot at 14.5% or 15% ABV and you will taste the difference immediately. The lower alcohol means less sugar, which allows the tannins and the other nuances to show. And you can really taste the terroir. If I had to sum up the taste of an Oregon Pinot in one word, it would be “soil”. Most Oregon Pinots will age gracefully for many years and will just get better and better.
Our first stop was Coeur De Terre, owned by Lisa and Scott Neal. Scott met
us at the door with his two big labs, Jack and Blue. Scott is a salt of
the earth, seat of the pants entrepreneur who went from zero production in
1998, to selling a dozen cases a week to some of the finest restaurants in
California, like George’s at the Cove. His single block wines have reached
cult status and he sells out every year. He’s a do-it-your-selfer, and he’s
learned how to make spectacular Pinot Noirs since he and Lisa planted their own
grapevines in the pouring rain over a decade ago. His secret is maximizing the
effect of the varied terroir, which in Oregon is usually metamorphic,
volcanic substrate, or ancient marine sediment. The rolling hills offer a
wide variety of slopes, exposures, and elevations, and the mixed geology
makes for many possible combinations of soil and sun for a maestro like
Scott to plant different Pinot clones. He planted familiar clones like 777,
Pommard, and Wadensville, with a few other varieties thrown in for flavor.
He and Lisa concentrated clones on different blocks to create specific
flavors and textures than can be blended at harvest, or bottled by
themselves. He grafts grapevines they think taste best to older vines. His
vineyards are organic and mostly dry farmed, and are protected by Jack and
Blue. Scott says you are tasting the block, not the clone, when you taste
his wines, and that his wines reflect the place and the year they were grown
more than anything else. He is a self-admitted control freak and oversees
all aspects of the wine making. He tastes the grapes before doing any
scientific tests, so the tests don’t influence his opinion. He cold soaks
the extraction for better color and flavor, and carefully monitors
temperatures through the process. I was impressed by how small the whole
operation is, and how few people work there. Not counting Jack and Blue,
they have five crew members working the vineyard. Lisa runs the business,
Scott runs the winemaking, and they make magic with their Pinot Noirs.
But enough about that, you want to know what a great Oregon Pinot tastes
like, right? Scott & Lisa’s Coeur De Terre 2011 Estate Pinot is a classic
Burgundian Style Pinot. It was amazingly crafted, light and delicate with a
nuanced vanilla undertone, even but not overpowering tannins, a hint of
mushrooms, washed over by bright cherry and strawberry fruit. The nose was
amazing, and suggested how well this wine will age. I think this was one of
the best wines we tasted. And it does not cost an arm and a leg. I hope
you get the chance to enjoy a bottle soon!
The 2009 Coeur De Terre Estate Pinot Noir is available now, and the 2011 will be available in July 2014 at www.winefactor.com!
Tom Reid, Wine Factor Wine Taster #3