Sitting Pretty: Oregon's New Release Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Beyond


It’s incredible to think that even with all the expansion of vineyards and wineries within Oregon, the region has untapped potential that remains ripe for future development. Somehow, as California and Washington have pushed the limits of exposing terroir, in Oregon, there are not only new and unique locations being discovered within the larger AVAs and sub-AVAs, but also new sites throughout the state that are being developed. The reality is that an aspiring winemaker with the right investors and a good nose for terroir can still secure uncultivated land here and begin planting vineyards at a reasonable cost. 

Looking out across the Seven Springs vineyard.

Many producers will explain that global warming was a more significant help than a hindrance in Oregon. I think back to over a decade ago when seasons started warming. While some producers lamented not being able to reproduce the wines that had made the region famous with more Euro-centric palates, others were over the moon to be making wines that were widely appealing to consumers. There were growing pains in the end, but winemakers found a new balance by adjusting their approach in the vineyards and wineries. In 2022, my predecessor, whom we all miss dearly, Josh Raynolds, wrote, “One could convincingly argue that the last six vintages, from 2014 through 2019, produced many of the greatest wines to ever emerge from the state.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more, and now, except for the 2020 vintage, Oregon pushes forward with three good to potentially great years in the form of 2021, 2022 and 2023. 

Moreover, while I’ve witnessed other winemaking regions break down their larger growing regions into sub-AVAs that don’t always communicate a stamp of terroir, the breakdown of Oregon’s Willamette Valley was expertly executed. Today, the names Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton (which were the first to be delineated in the early 2000s) are proudly emblazoned on the front labels of many wines and can provide consumers insights into what to generally expect from the bottle. More recently, they’ve added the Van Duzer Corridor, Tualatin Hills, Laurelwood District, Lower Long Tom and Mount Pisgah, Polk County, all incredibly unique and worth exploring.

The Domaine Serene vineyards in the Dundee Hills.

Coming Full Circle

When a consumer thinks of Oregon, Pinot Noir comes to mind first. However, the industry got its start with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while it was the latter that won Oregon its fame and became the region's primary focus. As a result, Chardonnay was very much pushed to the side, and when replanting took place, it was Pinot that was prioritized. Through it all, Chardonnay was waiting in the wings and is now making a significant impact on the region. While Pinot Noir isn’t going anywhere and continues to enjoy its reign as the most widely produced variety in the state, Chardonnay has been growing by leaps and bounds. A combination of more and more growers looking to expose the best sights to plant Chardonnay and a better understanding of the ideal clones to grow has sent quality levels through the roof. As a result, wineries like Morgen Long, Walter Scott, Goodfellow Family Cellars and 00 Wines have been able to take single-vineyard Oregon Chardonnay to new heights, inspiring many others to follow suit. Granted, in a report that contains over 900 wines, Pinot Noir still totals over 520 reviews, while Chardonnay only comes in around 182. However, I feel that we will witness a balancing of those scales in the years to come. That said, Pinot Noir is the pride of Oregon, and a look through just about any winemaker's portfolio will reveal multiple single-vineyard bottles, clonal selection bottlings, a prestige label and a larger production AVA bottling, which usually provides consumers with the best bang for their buck. 

However, it’s not just about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay any longer, and this is where Oregon's diversity and unexposed terroirs are also coming into play. I’ve found several exciting Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners. I believe there’s a massive potential for growth in these two categories, especially as cooler and well-ventilated locations are being developed. I hope to see many more of these in future tastings as both interest in the varieties and locations to source from increase. Plenty of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier are also being made, but not many of them truly moved the needle for me. Then there are the reds: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, and one of my favorites, Gamay Noir. I wish there was more to go around. For my tastes, Gamay is often to Oregon Pinot what cru Beaujolais is to Red Burgundy. 

The Bethel Heights vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills.

Beyond the Willamette Valley

While the Willamette Valley and its AVAs are clearly ahead of the game (experience counts), several emerging regions must now be considered. The most obvious of these locations is The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, which exists in the Walla Walla Valley in the extreme northeast. While most of the producers, to date, that are publicly sourcing from the Rocks hail from Washington, the fact is that this is a piece of Oregon terroir, and we can expect many more wineries in the state to start taking advantage of this resource. This recent trip revealed several Rocks District wines featuring Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Franc, which all boasted that unique stamp of terroir that this region has become known for. A few noteworthy standouts came from Big Farm Table, White Rose Estate and Martin Woods. Then there’s the highly diverse Rouge Valley in Oregon's southwest. This is a much warmer location than the Willamette Valley to the north. However, like its northern neighbor, it enjoys drastic diurnal shifts from day to night that help grapes maintain aromatics and acidity. The grapes planted here run the gamut from Bordeaux to Rhône Varieties, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even Barbera. From my experience, what the Rogue Valley is currently lacking is a regional flavor. Yet, it's easy to imagine the potential of this area and how it can set itself apart from the rest of the state. Then there’s the Umpqua Valley, located between the Willamette and Rouge Valleys, where I found more consistent quality and some great values from the likes of Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo and Merlot. Ultimately, Oregon is geared to prove to the world that there is life beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

A Possible Vintage Trifecta

As I mentioned earlier in this article, Oregon producers and wine lovers have much to be excited about. Despite some early worries, the 2021 vintage turned out to be fantastic. The 2022s make for a great comeback with larger quantities and remarkably pretty wines, and the 2023 harvest (while entirely too early to truly predict) has producers excited across the region.

2020: The Elephant in the Room

However, first, addressing the elephant in the room is essential: the 2020 vintage. 

By this time, I’m sure nearly every reader is aware of the challenges of the 2020 vintage, but for consistency, I believe it's essential to summarize. The 2020 vintage was potentially going to be great until a blanket of wildfire smoke descended upon the region on September 12th and remained for well over a week. The conditions were brutal, not just for the vines but also for the locals. Even if the fruit was at a stage where it could be picked, the question a conscientious winemaker had to make was if they were willing to send a human being out into those conditions to pick. 

Producers' opinions about the ability to make any, much less a quality wine in 2020 are all over the board. Some will explain that even the fruit picked before the smoke event was still likely affected by the residual smoke that not only blanketed the vineyards but also infused itself with nearly all that it touched inside and outside the wineries. Others believe that the key to any success was removing the juice from the skins and seeds as quickly as possible and, in some cases, even using the lees of the previous vintage to add structure and depth to the wines. Most producers I spoke with did pick their fruit and vinify the juice into wine. A common sentiment I received was the importance of supporting the local growers and vineyard workers, even if the fruit couldn’t be used. Many producers tried to filter. Others simply declassified into one wine, which they clearly represented to their customers as having the potential for smoke taint and sold only at the cellar door. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of Rosé made from the 2020 vintage. However, in nearly all cases, even if the wine was made, it was either bulked out or sold as-is, sometimes with interesting marketing tools, such as one producer mentioning selling a “Smoke-house” wine that was popular with local firefighters. 

Barrels at the Lingua Franca winery.

All of that said, there are a handful of entirely unexpected and surprisingly successful, even wildly successful, wines made from the 2020 vintage. Wines that thumb their nose at conventions or were survivors of the catastrophe by pure chance. 

Winemaker Thomas Savre of Lingua Franca created one of the most interesting, and frankly thrilling, Pinot Noirs of not only the vintage but from my last trip with the 2020 Novo Vivo. This unique location within the Lingua Franca estate vineyards was fully ripe and picked in the first week of September before the smoke descended. Unfortunately, just ninety cases were produced.  Another set of standouts hail from Maggie Harrison and co-winemaker Mimi Adams at Antica Terra. Harrison explained they had to pick “long after the smoke” because “none of our fruit was ripe before the fire.” She went on to explain that it was only because of the guidance of industry veterans such as Ted Lemon at Littorai and Sashi Moorman of Evening Land, Domaine de la Côte, Piedrasassi and numerous other projects that she was able to understand how to cope with smoke taint. Harrison vinified all of her Pinot Noir, yet upon analysis and tasting, decided not to bottle any at all. However, when it came to Chardonnay, it was a completely different story, as the wine went through a light crush and was immediately removed from the skins. The Aequorin and Aurata Chardonnays are two of the most successful wines of the vintage. There are other examples, primarily in the form of Chardonnay. Moreover, we are now witnessing more producers sourcing fruit from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in the extreme northeast, where smoke was much less of an issue. 

But beware, there are also a number of 2020s that had no right, ever, to be bottled. They are being sold in the market as if they are sound and at regular prices. Some of these wines are from producers that I never would have imagined making such a poor decision, one that ultimately will hurt the unsuspecting public and Oregon's reputation as a whole. These wines are lacking energy and/or depth on the palate and have harsh tannins. Flavors of smoky charred wood, barbeque or even burning tires on the nose and finish abound. Tasting a smoke-tainted 2020 is a grievous experience. Enough said. 

The many styles, unique vineyards and clonal selections of Pinot Noir in Oregon provide a wide range to choose from.

2021: Fruit-Forward yet Classically Structured

With that out of the way, it’s time to talk about the present and future in the form of the racy, fruit-forward yet classically structured 2021s and the elegant, finessed and adorable 2022s. While many late-release 2018s and 2019s show the qualities of their vintage, more than half of all the wines submitted for this report hail from the 2021 vintage, and I must say that tasting through them was an absolute pleasure. 

The initial worries over 2021 first came from the news about the heat dome that descended upon the region from the 27th to the 29th of June, with temperatures reaching up to 117 degrees. Yes, this was a warm vintage, with warmer-than-average temperatures throughout May and June. However, the saving grace, outlined by several producers, were rains that arrived prior to the heat dome that replenished water supplies and that the grapes and vines were in an early enough stage not to be heavily affected. 

The growing season remained warm and dry through most of August. It’s important to note the significant diurnal shifts that western Oregon experiences. Temperatures often drop by as much as 25-27 degrees at night. Moreover, a benefit of this warm and dry weather was a serious reduction of disease pressure throughout the year. Ben Casteel of Bethel Heights explained, “It was one of the cleanest growing seasons we had because all of the fungus died.” The defining moment occurred in September through October when seasonal rains brought much cooler temperatures. This was followed by near-perfect weather that lasted throughout harvest, which, for the most part, was completed around the middle of October. 

Expect Pinots with a forward personality out of the gate, perfumed with a gorgeous combination of rich fruit and spice energized by bright acidity yet followed up with a classic core of ripe tannins. Most 2021s don’t come across as warm vintage wines and possess a balance that will reward cellaring. I found Chardonnay equally appealing, where a balance of vividly ripe fruit is married to streamlined acidity and a solid core of minerality. In the end, following 2020, the 2021 vintage is a blessing for us all. 

The wide diversity of soils at Cristom vineyards.

An Early Look at 2022

Having taken an early look at 2022, long-time Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay collectors should be excited. While my tastings covered just over 150 wines, they included the likes of Patricia Green Cellars, Domaine Drouhin, Evening Land Vineyards, White Rose Estate, Kelley Fox Wines, Cristom Vineyards and many others. Of note, I expect to return to Oregon later this year, when 2022 will be the primary focus. From this current selection, I’m finding classic, almost throwback-style wines that impress with their perfumed personalities, finesse, cool-toned fruits and elevated acidity. Winemaker Aaron Bell of Domaine Drouhin described the season as “a cool and wet spring going into June followed by an average summer… during harvest, we were blessed with the most unbelievable conditions, 78-80 degrees well into October.”

While the big topic early in the season was frost, most producers reported yields that were on average or even larger than expected. Isabelle Meunier of Lavinea commented, "The summer was glorious, and we had a huge set. Yields were really high in 2022, really high. I had to ask many growers to crop down to one bunch per shoot.” Tom Gerrie, owner of Cristom Vineyards, had a similar perspective: “We dropped more than half the fruit, and we still ended up with yields a touch higher than 2021.” Overall, 2022 was a warm and dry yet balanced vintage, which is a breath of fresh air for most producers. At Evening Land Vineyards, winemaker Sashi Moorman explained that “the 2022s were made with much lower amounts of sulfur due to the low pH of the vintage, giving the wines a more lifted and energetic feel.” He commented on the compact nature of the season, detailing how “rainstorms around harvest made it a big rush to get everything in.”

Ultimately, this is a vintage that I’m very excited about and looking forward to exploring in greater depth. As a fan of Oregon wines going back nearly twenty years, the 2022s have a nostalgic feel to them. 

Because of a disruption of reporting on Oregon through the previous year, readers can expect two reports in 2024 that will put us back on track with all new releases. All of the wines in this report were tasted in Oregon through organized tastings and producer visits.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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