How does wine from a state dominated by small, mostly family-run vineyards and producing merely 1% of the U.S. total become so highly acclaimed? How does a region growing grapes for barely 50 years become synonymous with one of most well-known varietals on the planet?
The answer can only be a combination of a deep understanding of the unique terroir of this nascent wine region and the application of proven, time-honored winemaking techniques. That is exactly the formula used by David Lett and other wine pioneers in the mid-1960’s when they set about crafting wines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Known as “Papa Pinot,” Lett emulated the iconic Pinot Noir of the Old World, while simultaneously respecting the region’s unique cool climate and soils.
His success was soon noticed in France by top Burgundy producer Maison Joseph Drouhin. Like the Oregonian trailblazers, Drouhin discovered the similarity between the terroir of Oregon and that of the best cru estates in Burgundy. He eventually established Domaine Drouhin in the Valley in 1988.
The leap of faith by this Burgundian Pinot powerhouse propelled Oregon wine to the world stage…and wine glass. And it is the genesis of how Oregon has become the New World leader of Pinot Noir.
The Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA)--the largest in Oregon with 12,100 vineyard acres--was not the only wine region attracting Burgundian interest. The tiny, 350-vineyard acre Columbia Gorge AVA also lured Alexandrine Roy, a fourth generation winemaker from the famed Domaine Marc Roy. Diverse in terroir and straddling the border between Oregon and Washington State, it was the ideal growing climate for Pinot and Chardonnay that ultimately drew Roy from the Gevrey-Chambertin region to collaborate on an ambitious project near the Hood River.
Phelps Creek Vineyard owner Robert Morus approached Roy in 2007 about becoming head winemaker and she accepted. Phelps Creek Vineyard, with its reputation for producing high-quality fruit for other award-winning Oregon wineries was finally going to establish its own label. And at the helm, Roy was going to employ her Old World technique with the Gorge’s unique terroir to create fantastic Pinot Noirs.
Phelps Creek and Domaine Drouhin are only one of a handful of Oregon wineries employing French winemakers. These distinctive wineries have gained plenty of notoriety for their literal devotion to the Old World, but most importantly for their fantastic wine.
In the case of Domaine Drouhin, one can taste the legacy in its widely-available Cloudline Pinot, ($19.99, Morganelli’s $19.99). Consulting winemaker Veronique Drouhin sourced grapes from the Valley’s best vineyards to create a pinot that is lush, with red fruits and a hint of black pepper on the palate.
Roy’s goal to craft wine at Phelps Creek that is “distinctive yet expresses the site” is evident in her masterful pinots. Complex with rich dark fruit, wild berries, and mushroom flavors, the 2014 Cuvee Alexandrine (www. phelpscreekvineyards.com) showcases the surrounding forest, volcanic soils, and moderate temperature of the Hood River area.
Join me in celebrating the Burgundian “leap of faith” here at The Let’s Cook Studio October 18th from 6:00 to 9:00. Columbia has the unique opportunity to experience in person how France is helping transform Oregon into a Pinot--and Chardonnay--mecca. During a delicious multi-course meal, Phelps Creek Vineyard owner Bob Morus will pair five wines--two chardonnays, two pinots, and a dessert ice wine from his esteemed winery while educating guests on his Old World partnership. Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/exclusive-oregon-pinot-noir-winery-dinner-tickets-38128517422 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets to this exclusive event.
Also known as the "Wine Evangelist," Erlinda A. Doherty, CSW, WSET Level 3, is busy educating the Columbia community about all things wine. Through her passion project "VINÍCOLA," Erlinda provides a wide array of wine consulting services including seminars, educational events, sommelier services, hospitality staff training, and retail/supplier marketing. Check out her website at www.thevinicola.com or Instagram and Facebook to join the next wine seminar.