In the new century, more excellent producers arrived, like Big Farm, Antica Terra, J. Christopher, Walter Scott and Day Wines. All are making superb, distinctive wines that reflect their Willamette terroirs while respecting the Burgundian ideal: pinot noir as a wine of grace and finesse.
Yet pinot noir is not the sole narrative of the Willamette Valley. After a few false starts with chardonnay, the quality in the last decade has gotten better and better, especially in wines with a lean, minerally, energetic style.
Burgundians have flocked to Oregon in the wake of Drouhin’s success. Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault is working with Larry Stone, a pioneering American sommelier who planted 66 acres in 2013 in the Eola-Amity Hills region. Their operation, Lingua Franca, now sells elegant pinot noirs and chardonnays from purchased grapes and, this year, an excellent rosé from the vineyard’s first crop.
There’s also Alexandrine Roy of Domaine Marc Roy of Gevrey-Chambertin, working with Phelps Creek Vineyards in the Columbia Gorge area; and Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet in Vosnes-Romanée, who bought land in the Willamette with Jay Boberg, a music entrepreneur. The first vintage of Nicolas-Jay was 2014.
Jacques Lardière, the longtime technical director at Louis Jadot, the Burgundy house, is now overseeing Jadot’s new Résonance operation, and Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Comte Liger-Belair is the consulting winemaker for Chapter 24 Vineyards.
Oregon has established itself so well that a thriving wine counterculture has arisen, which, if not exactly rebelling against the dominance of pinot noir, is seeking to offer alternatives that are delicious and cheaper.
Gamay, or gamay noir as it is habitually called in Oregon, is one possibility. I’ve tried wonderful gamays from new wave négociants like Division, Bow & Arrow and The Color Collector, a start-up that made only 100 cases in 2015, its first commercial vintage. But precious little gamay is currently available in Oregon, and with the price of pinot noir dwarfing what growers can get for gamay, that may not change soon.
Still, the innovators are undaunted. Chad Stock of Minimus Wines and Craft Wine Company is experimenting with dozens of varieties, organically grown and naturally made, including albariño, mondeuse and other esoteric grapes. He makes tiny cuvées simply to see what could work, and experiments with alternatives to oak barrels, like acacia and chestnut, which have their own traditions in different parts of the world.
Brianne Day of Day Wines, whose fine pinot noirs from the Willamette are nuanced, also buys grapes like tannat and cabernet franc from the Applegate Valley in the south of Oregon to make almost instinctive blends that are balanced and delicious.
During my visit, I tried dolcettos and nebbiolos, assyrtikos and aligotés, gewürztraminers and others from labels like Holden Wine Company, Franchere Wine Company, Smockshop Band and Hiyu Wine Farm. Many were terrific. Seek them out if you are in the mood to sample some surprising, provocative wines.
Part of what I love about Oregon, and the Willamette Valley in particular, is the small scale. Most Willamette wineries are family operations, and the business of the valley is clearly agriculture, not tourism. It has yet to see the large-scale hotels, fancy restaurants and extravagant winery structures that make, say, Napa Valley seem more Disney than farmland.
Big wine companies like Jackson Family Wines and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates have started to buy in. This is not a bad thing, but it does bring with it the possibility, at least, that big companies will want to push tourism, and that land values will rise quickly. In which case, dreams like Big Table Farm’s may no longer be possible, even a little bit at a time.
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