Weather aside, it has been a white-hot year for Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This once-sleepy, Pinot Noir-obsessed wine region has heralded several major real estate transactions and significant partnerships over the past 12 months. And the fire shows no signs of dying down; at least two new deals were breaking or pending at the time of writing.
For Pinot Noir lovers, the most provocative outcome of this uptick in activity has been the confirmation of Burgundy’s reciprocal love affair with Oregon. We always knew that the Willamette Valley harbored a mad crush on the Côte d’Or, but not until 2013 was it confirmed that the feeling was mutual.
Since last March, a who’s-who list of Burgundians – Jacques Lardière (Maison Louis Jadot), Louis-Michel Liger-Belair (Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair) and Jean-Nicolas Méo (Domaine Méo-Camuzet) – have arrived on Oregon soil to try their hands at New World Pinot Noir.
In addition, Maison Joseph Drouhin threw additional weight behind its Domaine Drouhin Oregon operation with the purchase of the 279-acre Roserock property in September. And despite all the chaos happening at Evening Land Vineyards, Dominique Lafon remains as consulting winemaker for the label’s prestigious Seven Springs Vineyard wines.
But if the Willamette Valley is the New World equivalent of Burgundy, a natural question follows: how might Oregon’s vineyards one day be classified? Which sites might, in the distant future, achieve a grand cru-like status?
This is, of course, an incredibly fraught question. And, as with everything in life, it all boils down to two factors: time and money.
Burgundy has been a winegrowing region since pre-Roman times; monastic orders began selecting its best clones and cataloguing its microclimates as far back as the 6th century. Oregon, on the other hand, can only trace its wine industry back to the 19th century and for just the past five decades or so has site selection been treated with scholarly fastidiousness. So far, just six sub-appellations have been declared as American Viticultural Areas in the 3.3 million-acre Willamette Valley. This region needs more time to sort itself out.
As for money, consider the fact that the United States is the world’s foremost capitalist economy and a culture in which dollar signs are equated with achievement. So, if you ask most American wine aficionados which of Oregon’s single vineyards are best, they will respond with the names of: 1) the vineyards that cost the most; 2) the most expensive vineyards to develop; 3) the wines that sell for the highest prices; 4) the wineries that buy the most prominent full-page, four-color ads in wine magazines; and 5) the vineyards owned by the savviest deal-makers. Could there be anything further from monastic scholarship?
But if, just as a thought experiment, you were to ask serious Oregon oeno-insiders to predict which single vineyards might, in the far future, achieve a grand cru-like status, you’d get a very different list. Instead of buzz-generating, high-profile sites, you would hear about vineyards that have stayed out of the limelight—mostly because the winemakers working with them are not status seekers.
So. which vineyards provoke Oregon winemakers to dream and in-the-know collectors to drool? Which wines do sommeliers and wine merchants buy for themselves, to drink at home? Here are five names I hear frequently when I ask this question of industry insiders.
You may have never heard of them, but a century from now, your great-grandchildren just might speak of them in the same reverent tones that we use today to refer to Clos de Vougeot or La Tâche.
1. Abbey Ridge Vineyard
Planted in 1976, this is a relatively high-elevation site for the Dundee Hills, at between 650 and 800 feet. It is still own-rooted and dry-farmed and has shown no signs of phylloxera. Three of Oregon’s most coveted insider labels source fruit from Abbey Ridge: Cameron, J. Christopher and Westrey Wine Company.
2. The Eyrie Vineyard
"Papa Pinot" David Lett planted his flagship vineyard in 1966 with year-old, own-rooted vines and his site remains a Dundee Hills classic. Notable for its stands of original native timber, it boasts five different soil types. Jason Lett, David’s son, continues to dry-farm the vineyard, “surpassing the organic standard,” never tilling and working with phylloxera-infested vines until they breathe their last.
3. Jessie Vineyard
First planted in 1994, this Eola-Amity Hills property owned by Cristom winery is endowed with an unusually diverse array of soil types: witzel, ritner, nekia, gelderman and saum. Only the top 10 rows are irrigated (and then, only rarely). Winemaker Steve Doerner’s understanding of this site goes so deep that MWs have repeatedly mistaken his 2001 Jessie for a Grand Cru Burgundy in blind tastings.
4. Maresh Red Hills Vineyard
Converted from orchard to vineyard in 1970, Maresh occupies the heart of the Dundee Hills. Today, some of Oregon’s most “Burgundian” labels source Maresh fruit: Arterberry Maresh, Scott Paul, Kelley Fox, and the new pinot project from Jean-Nicolas Méo in partnership with music exec Jay Boberg. Remarkably, the self-rooted, 44-year-old vines have remained 95 percent free of phylloxera. The site is dry-farmed to organic standards. A 2013 Wine Advocate review gave the still-vibrant 1985 Arterberry Pinot Noir a score of 98.
5. Thomas Vineyard
Reclusive vigneron John Thomas avoids the press and immediately sells out of the few hundred cases of pinot noir he produces each year – if he doesn’t declassify the vintage. Thomas planted his dry-farmed site in 1984 to a tight 3090 vines per acre; oddly – for the Dundee Hills – it’s on sedimentary WillaKenzie soil. In 1988, according to Thomas, one Robert Drouhin visited and took notes.
Admittedly, the above list is heavy on Dundee Hills sites due to the concentration of vineyards planted in that sub-appellation in the early days of Willamette Valley winegrowing. And, like Volnay or Chambolle-Musigny, Dundee Hills wines tend to be seductive upon release. For the long haul, the Eola-Amity Hills, Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge are regions to watch.
With apologies to many, many others, Antica Terra, Beaux Frères, Bethel Heights, Brick House, Brooks, Canary Hill, Clos Electrique (Cameron), Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Evesham Wood, Mineral Springs Ranch (Soter), Murto Vineyard, Seven Springs Vineyard, Temperance Hill Vineyard and Weber Vineyard are among the many, many other names that come up when Willamette Valley wine freaks discuss what separates very good from great.
As for “Grand,” give us a hundred years to get back to you on that.