It was a spectacular Mother’s Day Sunday in the Willamette Valley, the Pinot noir heartland and all around world class destination wine region about an hour’s drive southwest of Portland. Yes, Pinot noir is the beloved grape of the region, as symbolic here as malbec is to Mendoza, Argentina or shiraz to Southeast Australia. Tasting around the region for an afternoon, you’ll find a few chardonnays and rieslings here and there, but seriously, it’s about the Pinot. You’ll have lots of good Pinot, some great Pinot, perhaps one taste of a Pinot that has the watery, faint style of the lackluster Pinot Noir that constitutes most of this country’s Pinot noir sales, and then you’ll find the jackpot of a thick, rich, jammy, plush taste such as the 2009 Pas de Nom or 2010 Williamette Valley Pinot Noir, both at the beautiful tasting room of Penner-Ash near Newberg, staring down Mt. Hood in the far eastern horizon.
The trip was a bit of an impromptu one, with wineries chosen on the go as we sped through the country roads in the Mini Cooper of our host and guide. The sprawling, green as Ireland scenery seemed downright rural at times, a far cry from the congestion of Napa and other wine regions. You could’ve sworn that a herd of sheep might just stroll across the road at any turn.
Penner-Ash’s wines and tasting room experience came out on top, but Adelsheim and the Carlton Wine Studio both offer some very worthy candidates. Steered towards Adelsheim because its winery and tasting room were designed by a friend, the somewhat awkward, uncomfortable host never seemed at ease asking questions or describing the wines. Luckily, the wines need no descriptions. Dave Paige is the winemaker, a Pinot noir master, as shown by the exceptional, berry forward 2009 Boulder Bluff and 2009 Elizabeth’s Reserve.
Strangely, the more expensive 2009 Temperance Hill and 2009 Bryan Creek Pinot noirs lacked as much structure and had some thorny sharp notes, not as pleasant and smooth to the palate. Paige has a real winner on the white wine side with his beautifully balanced, oak forward Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay, along with a classic example of Oregon Pinot blanc from 2010, with its sweet burst at first restrained towards the finish. For what is a real up and coming wine region, Adelsheim is the grandfather, founded in 1971 by David and Ginny Adelsheim. Back then they grew 15 acres of grapes. Today, Adelsheim has roughly 250 acres. The size has grown, but the wines still remain some of Oregon’s best.
Near Adelsheim along a dusty dirt road that reminded me of the twisty dirt roads of Mendoza, Argentina, resides Trisaetum, the one disappointment of the trip. Though their Pinot noir has garnered numerous accolades, not one reached even the lowest Pinot noir at any of the other stops. The 2009 Estates Reserve was hands down the winner of the unimpressive lot, still a tad too peppery and unsettled. Neither the Trisae 2009 or 2010 vintages boasted much life and the 2009 Artist Series No. 9 from select Pommard clones was very undignified, tasting too much of nutmeg or clove. Interestingly, the best wines were the 2011 Trisae rosé from the estate’s Pinot noir grapes and the 2011 Ribbon Ridge Estate Medium Dry Riesling that seamlessly mixed sweet with the right amount of slate in a full rounded body. The same estate’s dry riesling proved more meager and overly hinting of sweet melon.
Andrea and James Frey founded the winery in 2003, one of the younger fully established wineries of the region with Penner-Ash. Frey is also a painter with his works the inspiration for the Artist series and showcased everywhere in the open, somewhat corporate feeling tasting room. Do try to partake in the spectacular patio in the rear of the tasting room overlooking the rolling hills of the Ribbon Ridge Estate (Ribbon Ridge is the name of the road the winery is located on and the appellation that the winery is located in). Fortunately the spectacular patio and the paintings inside, along with the gracious service help distract from the Pinot noirs that need far more time to grow. They show promise down the road. Today, they just aren’t with the heavy hitters of the region’s bountiful Pinot noir vintages.
Our host was sincerely hoping for our discerning tastes to assess the famed Ken Wright Pinot noirs, but his winery is only open a handful of days a year. In theory, they can be tasted at his son Tyrus Evan’s tasting room in Carlton, but with time at a maximum, we chose to get a broad tasting at the Carlton Wine Studio in town, and sample some Ken Wright at the house.
The Carlton Wine Studio showcases eleven local Yamhill-Carlton AVA vintners whose operations are still too diminutive to operate tasting rooms. I’m guessing soon though, based on the caliber of these wines, many of them will be growing very soon. In particular, Utopia, whose 2009 Pinot noir boasted a big, strong structure with plenty of spice, a thoroughbred of a Pinot noit. We drove by Utopia’s small vineyard plot on the way out of Carlton. It must be some of the best Pinot noir soil in Oregon based on this wine.
Nearly as impressive was the zesty 2009 Wahle Holmes Pinot noir with interesting citrus notes that almost made your mouth pucker like eating a grapefruit with some sugar on top. Both the 2009 Retour Pinot noir and 2009 Andrew Rich Verbatim Pinot noir were enjoyable, though lacked the depth of their fellow Pinots at the studio. This quartet of Pinot noir shows however just how strong and focused quality Oregon Pinot noir is, brilliant with any meat, even a steak, or savored on their own.
The Brittan 2010 Chardonnay veered too much toward the lighter, fruity end of the spectrum. The star of the chardonnay show of the day was the pristine 2009 Blakeslee Chehalem Mountains Chardonnay, presenting copious amounts of oak notes blended harmoniously with lush tropical fruits by winemaker Sheri Hood. Only 204 cases of it were made, so hurry now for this perfect rendition of a powerful yet elegant chardonnay.
Unfortunately back at the house as the tastings continued from the cellar, all of the Ken Wright had been finished before my arrival. In its place were two exceptional Pinot noirs, one a very cherry forward vintage from Patricia Green, one of the region’s largest producers, and another by Luminous Hills that could have passed for a cabernet sauvignon with its notable tannins.
Let’s keep the region a secret to avoid the crowds, but really, some of the country’s finest wine is being made in the Yamhill-Carlton area of the Willamette Valley. Sure, Pinot noir is the heart and soul of the region. You will find indeed some world class Pinot noir throughout the Willamette Valley. It’s the whole experience, from the hospitality to the setting that makes this region so special. The wines are pretty spectacular too.