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Willamette, Dammit




In the lore of California wine, international fame ensued when a few Napa Valley bottles bested their French counterparts in a blind tasting. Oregon's breakaway moment came a few years later, when a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir scored . . . well, a close second to a top Burgundy. Très Oregonian. While we usually train the tip of our tongue on Pinot Noir of the North Bay, this week we find ourselves in the Burgundy of the north, only an hour and change out of the Sonoma County Airport via a Horizon Air's Bombardier.

Copious rain and gray skies are hallmark hazards of Oregon winegrowing, but last year it was flocks of migratory robins from Canada, says winemaker Stewart Boedecker. Boedecker Cellars is a young urban winery in Portland's Northwest industrial district, where the main aroma is of beer—courtesy of the Pyramid Brewery across the tracks. With notes of nutmeg and classic, demure fruit, the 2009 Barrel Select Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($16) has an unexpectedly lush palate of black fruit over a cranberry-tart core.

A random stroll through sleepy McMinnville finds us at Eyrie Vineyards, home to the famed also-ran of 1979. In this antique warehouse, a Frenchman pours the 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve ($60). Delicate, suggesting sautèed shiitake, crumbled bacon and Mandarin orange peel, with flavors like a tea of dried cranberry and cherry, this Pinot sees only 10 percent new oak, the balance including neutral barrels at least 12 years old, an age when many have long since been sawed in half and planted with tomatoes.

Coincidentally, a portrait of Eyrie cofounder Diana Lett graces some labels of the equally venerable Adelsheim Vineyard. Its 2008 Allette Pinot Noir ($45), Pommard clone, has just a ghost of the cherry-cola aroma that's familiar to Russian River Valley enthusiasts.

The scene around a sign announcing the Yamhill viticultural area is unlike anything in California's wine country. Fields of hay, orchards of hazelnuts—or filberts, if you will—and the occasional bright red rhododendron. Not a grapevine in sight. (End-to-end vineyard vistas are not the norm here, where total vineyard acreage is only one-third of that in Sonoma County alone.) The WillaKenzie Estate is high on a hill, above lush lowland grass reserved for a lazing herd of longhorn cattle (see above). From the terrace of the industrial-styled winery, we spy two red-tailed hawks swooping in circles above the slopes, while a crew works the vines below. The 2009 Estate Cuvèe Pinot Noir ($28) features a bouquet of dried cherries, graphite; the fruit is light, but the silky texture is the key.

Have we found that Oregon Pinot is a less fruit-forward beverage than that produced in the North Coast in this too-brief survey? Yes, but not in the same way that our generic California-appellated Pinot is simply weaker. Like many things up here—from the drizzling rain to strangely polite drivers—it just takes some getting used to.—James Knight

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