moving past pinot

Friday, January 22, 2010

There is general agreement that Oregon is known around the country and even outside our borders as the pinot noir state. This dates back as far as the late 1970s, when an Eyrie pinot showed well in a prestigious competition. A few years later Robert Parker lavished praise on the landmark 1983 vintage, just as many new wineries were being opened. By the end of that decade, with Robert Drouhin’s DDO project established, the reputation for Oregon pinot noir was on a strong upward trajectory.

Is this a curse or a blessing? Look at what has happened in the subsequent two decades. For starters, the geographical scope of Oregon wines has expanded dramatically. Eastern Oregon wineries in the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley AVAs are proliferating. Yet thanks at least in part to Oregon’s focus on pinot pinot pinot, some of the best eastern Oregon producers (notably in Walla Walla) have been “claimed” by Washington. Southern Oregon wineries have also experienced a dramatic growth spurt, and most are focusing on ABP wines – anything but pinot – in many instances. The state’s pinot-centric reputation does these wineries little or no good.

A brief visit to Abacela yesterday included tastings of estate-grown albariño, tempranillo, late harvest viognier and a fortified port-style wine crafted from true Portuguese varietals. In the barrel room we sampled syrahs and malbecs. Not a pinot in sight. Owner Earl Jones showed me a detailed soil map, with evidence that a fault line, running right through the middle of his property, divides it neatly into one half with the oldest soils in Oregon (more than 250 million years old; and the youngest, created just 25,000 years ago. That’s a great story, and Abacela has the great wines to go with it. But I’m not holding my breath until Oregon becomes known as the tempranillo state.

Later, at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in the Applegate Valley, I tasted grenache and syrah, along with a three-grape white blend made from equal parts of marsanne, roussanne and viognier, co-fermented. This is exciting stuff! Biodynamically farmed (as are more and more Oregon vineyards), Cowhorn’s first few vintages are turning out distinctive, balanced wines with deep colors, ripe tannins and complex, earthy flavors, despite the youth of the vines. This winery, as do many others in Oregon, holds tightly to the vigneron concept – grower/winemakers, who cultivate their wines from the ground up. This is a great story to tell, as more and more consumers look to locally-grown foods and farmer’s markets.

It seems to me that it’s past time for Oregon’s vintners and especially its marketing organizations to make a concerted effort to showcase the state’s viticultural diversity. I’m not saying forget pinot, or abandon it. Absolutely not. But find creative ways to hitch some of the other wines and strengths to the pinot bandwagon.

I’ve become especially fond of white wines from Oregon. Not just pinot gris and chardonnay, but also riesling, pinot blanc, and more rarified offerings such as albariño and arneis. They have a delicacy and floral aspect generally missing from other west coast whites. Oregon’s non-pinot reds are starting to define themselves regionally also, though the competition for such varietals as syrah is intense. It seems everyone is making syrah these days, and no one is buying it. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, I suggest that if you are a friend of Oregon pinot noir, you grab a bottle of pinot blanc or riesling from your favorite producer as well. You may be very pleasantly surprised.


terroirist said...

Youngest soils in Oregon (25,0000 years old!) at Abacela?! Did Earl tell you that? The loess-based soils in Seven Hills Vineyard are less than 12,000 years old (post Missoula floods) as are many of the Missoula flood-based and alluvial soils of the Willamette Valley. Some of the BEDROCK in SW Oregon is as old as 250 Million years (Triassic) but the SOILS overlying and partially derived from that bedrock are MUCH,MUCH younger.

PaulG said...

Don't blame Earl. I may have misinterpreted his highly technical explanation. He was in fact referring to the bedrock, and he may well have meant that these were the youngest soils west of the Cascades. Mea culpa.

Josh Kimball said...

Been enjoying your blog Paul! Nice write up, but I'm not necesarily sure that I agree with your statement that "The state’s pinot-centric reputation does these wineries little or no good."

I agree that Southern Oregon wines deserve their fair justice, and I really believe in what's going on down there, but I'm pretty sure it would be much more challenging for the cluster to survive if it weren't for the awareness raised by these campaigns. If anything they've been able to capitalize on this reputation more than it's hurt them.

Earl said...

Mea maxima culpa; If this is an argument about the location of Oregon’s truly youngest soil then I would speculate that it lies somewhere alongside one of western Oregon’s mature rivers deposited there as an alluvial delta during the floods of 1964 or at other times in the last millennium.
In some areas we don’t know exactly when bedrock becomes soil. The map Paul mentioned was not of soil but geology; it is known as the Roseburg Quadrangle and was prepared by a USGS Survey team lead by Ray Wells, link .
The map and database describes, among other things the north thrusting Klamath Terrane’s ancient collision and overriding of the youthful Oregon Coastal Terrane and their subsequent Eocene uplift by huge submarine basaltic flows from the Roseburg Volcanics. The line of impact, obvious to the curious in the 1800s was unnamed until Wells, et. al. labeled it “Safari Fault” from their studies on property owned by a local zoo in 2000.
The fault line runs east-west bisecting our vineyards into two distinct provinces. To the south lies bolder strewn loamy soils derived from ancient Cretaceous to Jurassic bedrock while on the north are sandy cobbled soils derived from comparative youthful seafloor sediments at some time in more recent history. Some geologists visiting Abacela have speculated that the soils of these steep south facing cobbled hills were created by uplift about 25,000 years ago just before Mount Mazama erupted to form Crater Lake (roughly 7,000 years ago). Thus the exact geological age and the phenomenology that created and so placed these soils are not well defined. It is truly remarkable to think that the age of soils found feet apart on the north and south of a line could differ by as much as, {to make a point}, 224,975,000 years. That is what I tried to communicate.
Whenever created, we know Abacela’s aptly named Fault Line Vineyards are comprised of 5 major soil types: Sutherlin Silt Loam 175, Coburg Silt Loam 70A, Nonpareil Loam 120C, Philomath-Complex 150, Dickerson Loam 133F and their various subtypes. This is only a small part of the 185 USDA defined soil types found in the exceedingly complex geological tumult of Douglas County. I apologize for any confusion but it is difficult to tell the Umpqua bedrock and soil story accurately and succinctly.

PaulG said...

Josh, I appreciate that you and I have different opinions about the impact of pinot promotions on the marketing of southern OR wines. But I would have to see some solid evidence before I could agree with your assessment. Why on earth should someone from, say, Texas, who is a fan of say, Beaux Freres and Domaine Serene and Ken Wright pinots, associate them with a syrah from Umpqua, much less go try one? Granted, it's one opinion vs. another, but I sure don't see a connection.

Terroirist said...

Earl- In general, that was a very good clarification - but again it's not the age of the SOILS that differs so much on either side of the fault, it's the age of the bedrock from which they were partially derived. I'm sure that some of the soil units on the USDA maps actually overlap the fault in the bedrock. Southwestern Oregon and northern California consist of an amazing hodgepodge of fault-bounded blocks of bedrock of many different types and ages - a tectonic garbage dump. I have no doubt that the soils formed on these different rock types have textural and mineralogical differences that profoundly affect the terroir, even though your son Greg might argue with me. Somebody needs to plant a vineyard in soils derived from those big blocks of exotic (Tethyan) limestone (originated near China!) that lurk in the hills SW of Roseburg. Love your wines, by the way.

Josh Kimball said...


Because the Umqua wine is from Oregon and Oregon has become internationally known (by combining quality with promotional efforts)for producing world class wines. The efforts that have gone into promoting Oregon Pinot go beyond the varietal itself - it's allowed for the concept of "Brand Oregon" to develop which has legitimized the entire state as a wine producing region in the mind of the average consumer. I think that without this recognition, it would be much more challenging for Southern Oregon wineries to drive consumer traffic and to convince people to try their wines.

Mike Noel said...

I have to side with Josh on this one. It's the same effect Napa Valley has for the rest of California. Napa might draw me in as a consumer but if I'm truly an enthusiast I will find my way to Sonoma and eventually the Rhone varietals of the Central Coast. Before long I am re-energizing at the Bacara Resort and Spa to the south and feeling satisfied with my explorations over the many years and many, many miles away from that seminal trip to Napa Valley.

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