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Oregon's Five Grand Cru Sites of the Future

Oregon is attracting attention from Pinot Noir growers
© Wikimedia/Aboutmovies | Oregon is attracting attention from Pinot Noir growers
With Burgundians arriving in their droves, Katherine Cole considers which Oregon vineyards have the potential to be the equivalent of a Burgundy grand cru.

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.

Dundee Hills is ideal for Pinot Noir
© Dundee Hills Winegrowers Association | Dundee Hills is ideal for Pinot Noir

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.

Cristom's Jessie Vineyard is a site to watch
© Ethan Prater, Wikimedia/John D'Anna | Cristom's Jessie Vineyard is a site to watch

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.

Related stories:

Louis Jadot Moves into Oregon

Jackson Family Buys Oregon Winery

Jacques Lardière's Oregon Adventure

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  • Comments

    100 years, Really???? wrote:
    19-Apr-2014 at 12:05:43 (GMT)

    Wow, a very shallow look at an important topic in our view. We currently have over 40 nominated Oregon Grand Cru® vineyards by the American Grand Cru Society®. Its not French, not an AOC bureaucracy, simply a young American Non Profit using qualified crowd sourcing and research in phase one, to identify American Grand Cru vineyard site nominees for future celebration recognition. Why 100 years or 500 years, really that is just silly. If you know your history it didn't take that long for the monks with mid-evil science and technology anyway even if that was important. Today we can tell you after 12-15 years of consistent amazing ripened fruit (after the vine adolescence period) if the vineyard site has the goods for a longer term, and many winemakers know exactly where these great sources of fruit exist already today. We believe simply that consumers who care to know should be able to have similar access. Maybe, or even hopefully more vineyard specific/designated wines (even blends from multiple high quality vineyards) will emerge along with the added consumer transparency which is always a good thing. Wouldn't it be great for consumers to know who is selling pricey wines made with Mega Purple too? That should be transparent too but likely never will, and we will leave that to another groups to take on. (If you are not familiar with that legal approved additive, you may want to investigate further.) Great wines come from great vineyards, that is just the way it is~ While Oregon has definitely created its own amazing styles of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, (even a smattering of Riesling and Pinot Gris too), it should only be compared to Burgundy maybe for PN and CH because there has been a history of great Pinot Noirs from that area historically. Honestly we all know that the comparison is market positioning effort so its not going away. Great American Pinot Noirs are coming from a few other regions along the west coast consistently too of course, and oh by the way Sea Smoke did voluntarily remove the "California Grand Cru®" notation from their label. Its a legal trademark being stewarded responsibly (as is the term Oregon Grand Cru® ;-) and should be respected as such too not just because its the legal thing to do but intellectual property should simply be respected. Cheers GP

  • Troy wrote:
    12-Apr-2014 at 05:09:43 (GMT)

    Is Shea not "under the radar" enough for this list?

  • Wayne wrote:
    11-Apr-2014 at 17:22:42 (GMT)

    Bill, There are great sites across the entire valley. And everyone has their favorites. Shea, Seven Springs, and Youngberg Hill are my top choices. But as you know, the fruit varies dramatically across the six sub-AVAs. Not in terms of quality, but in terms of characteristics. So it depends on what you like.

  • Adam wrote:
    10-Apr-2014 at 01:08:30 (GMT)

    Shea would be there if it were cooler.

  • Chris wrote:
    09-Apr-2014 at 23:58:00 (GMT)

    Abbey Ridge (red and white...Bill Wayne is the best!), Clos Electrique white (old Burgundian clones), Seven Springs/Anden, Carter, Freedom Hill and Hyland(great old 1971 vintage vines)all produce magic.

  • James wrote:
    09-Apr-2014 at 22:22:31 (GMT)

    Shea??? Wahle is certainly there along with Highland

  • Will wrote:
    07-Apr-2014 at 02:14:41 (GMT)

    Shea and Freedom Hill.

  • Erica wrote:
    02-Apr-2014 at 02:48:32 (GMT)

    My list would include: Seven Springs Shea Maresh Jacob Hart

  • Nick Stengel wrote:
    02-Apr-2014 at 00:30:12 (GMT)

    umm...Shea?








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