Tasting Blind: Oregon Pinot Noir Steals the Spotlight Once Again

If you’d ask my grandmother to name a country where Pinot Noir is produced, she’d tell you France right off the bat. She doesn’t even drink wine, only rakija. That’s how celebrated Burgundy is with this grape variety. So how did Oregon get into the picture? Or any other reputable US region for that matter? Well, led by pioneers David Lett and Joseph Drouhin, this state started making wine in the early 1980s after figuring out that the conditions were ace for growing grapes (located on the same latitude as Burgundy and New Zealand’s South Island).

Today, there are plenty of microclimates and French influence is quite strong (finesse, terroir, diversity, grand aging capability…). The majority of vineyards are located within 80 miles of the Pacific coastline where a vast, shallow valley lies between the Coast Range and the Cascades to the east. Climate is distinctly continental unlike the moderate, maritime climates of California’s Pinot Noir regions such as Russian River Valley and the Central Coast. Oregon vines experience four full seasons with cold winters and hot summers, seeing less sunshine than most AVAs, which forces the grapes to ripen slower. Willamette Valley is the dominant region with 70% of the planted vineyards, which totals about 11,000 ha. Other regions are increasing in importance, such as the Columbia Gorge, on the border of the State of Washington, which has 8% and the Rogue Valley and Umpqua Valley of Southern Oregon with about 10% each. The soil in the main parts of Willamette Valley consists mainly of volcanic and sedimentary rocks and loess. This soil is poor, which forces the roots to go deep to seek water and minerals. Average annual temperature is lower and is around the same as in Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace.

The majority of wineries here are family-run, concentrating on boutique production and high quality. The vinification process usually includes whole-bunch pressing of estate-grown grapes and aging in French oak barrels. Almost every noteworthy winery grows at least one Burgundian clone of Pinot (Dijon 115, 667, 777). Now why does big-ticket Oregon sometimes taste like Burgundy, sometimes like New World? Well, depends on the winemaker, whether or not he’s a Burg fanatic who’s worked harvests in Cote d’Or and has come back enlightened. When we’re describing a Pinot that’s “made in Burgundian style”, generally we’re describing a wine that is not a heavy fruit bomb, has lower alcohol and subtler layers of complexity. This always heats up discussions at the table. Who wants to drink (arguably) overpriced premier crus when some of the best AVAs in the US can offer better quality for an equal or lower price?

At a blind tasting held by Fine Wines SG, I had the opportunity to taste 16 Pinots (7 Premier Cru Burg, with 1 Grand Cru tucked in – 8 Oregon) side by side. Oregon won by one point, but that’s not what amazed me the most. The way the stereotypes – Burgundy being earthy & lean and Oregon being fruit-forward & concentrated – were instantly destroyed was the highlight of the event. The crowd was a healthy mix of trade and casual wine drinkers and we were all wrong at some point. Not a single wine got an unanimous vote and nobody was snobbish about it. There were no meaningless attempts trying to justify decisions made. It’s pointless to do that while tasting blind, especially when the lines that separate two different continents are heavily blurred. This gives me a refreshing point of view on things – that even the most traditional, sought-out styles (and people) can change over time. Take your time reading through the tasting notes. You’ll definitely get a better understanding on what these wines are about, how two colossal regions stand proud shoulder to shoulder and what they offer with their respective price tags.

Faiveley ‘Aux Vignerondes’ Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru 2012 (Price: S$87)
A great place to start the tasting. A rather aromatic Pinot with ripe red fruit and a bit of spice coming into first plan. The palate offers some oak goodness (wouldn’t say new) and lots of heat, that blends pretty well with the acidity. Full body. High tannins, bit on the green side. Still pretty young.

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 2014 (Price: S$85)
Subtle red fruit mixes with quite a bit of VA on the nose. Fairly restrained palate with not much substance and high alcohol sticking out. I thought that there was stem inclusion here, but Drouhin’s website clearly states that everything is hand sorted and de-stemmed prior to bottling. Medium aftertaste. Would be hard to pinpoint this to Oregon if it wasn’t part of a two-wine flight.

Bouchard Pere & Fils ‘Caillerets Ancienne Cuvee Carnot’ Volnay 1er Cru 2013 (Price: S$128)
Deep ruby red. Ripe red fruit jumping out of the glass, going almost to the jammy side with loads of new oak following. Compact and dense with loads of tannins and alcohol. Definitely needed longer decanting, but also a later drinking window. Guessed Oregon right off the bat, simply because of the jamminess and big oak. Surprise, surprise.

Domaine Drouhin Roserock Pinot Noir 2014 (Price: S$79)
This Oregon of Flight 2 showed a more restrained character than the Volnay. A touch of heat when just opened, but this quickly dissipates. You’re left with a exotic Pinot showing amazing fruit purity, fine-grained tannins and strong grip all the way to the finish line. Good shit and hands down the best value for money together with Cristom (wine #16).

Jean-Luc & Paul Aegerter ‘Belissand’ Beaune 1er Cru 2015 (Price: S$129)
A pretty generic wine with a good combo of fruit and oak, but not much substance beyond that. Well-balanced, light and refreshing. Even though this will start showing more in a year, I don’t see any crazy potential. The table guessed this to be Burgundy, but we all agreed that it wasn’t exactly a diamond in the rough.

Archery Summit ‘Premier Cuvée’ Pinot Noir 2012 (Price: S$128)
Rather muted nose, some red berry fruit here and there, but that’s pretty much it. The palate gives way more than expected – notes of ripe cherry, blueberry, cola and chunks of forest floor-dried leaves character. Gives you a hint that it’s developing way too fast for a fairly young wine, but if you want to drink it now, you’re in for a rich, smooth, juicy treat.

Jean-Luc & Paul Aegerter ‘Réserve Personnelle’ Pernand-Vergelesses Cru 2015 (Price: S$89)
It’s always amusing to me how cheaper wines usually get much better scores at blind tastings than their overpriced counterparts. The Pernand was quite gamey on the nose, additionally showing tones of ripe strawberry, pomegranate juice and redcurrant. More tertiary character on the palate with high tannins and a very, very lean structure. Medium finish.

Domaine Serene ‘Evenstad Reserve’ Pinot Noir 2014 (Price: S$119)
The fruit you smell on first whiff just can’t screw up your night in any way – dried strawberries, raspberry gummy bears, hibiscus and violets. Serene’s flagship wine made to drink now with lighter meats, but if you’re a fanboy of bottle aging, this will definitely develop in the years to come thanks to the showy acidity and stout ripeness.

Domaine Réyane et Pascal Bouley ‘Les Robardelles’ Volnay 1er Cru 2014 (Price: S$89)
This was the biggest surprise of the evening. People were left opened-mouthed when the reveal showed that this was in fact Volnay and not Oregon as everything indicated. Candied fruit reminded me immediately of the sweet Marlborough Pinots I used to sell a ton of back in the day. Way too syrupy in the mouth, both from the oak and fruit ripeness. Disappointingly plain.

Evening Land ‘Seven Springs Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2012 (Price: S$90)
Discreet aromas of fresh berry fruit, nutmeg, clove and sun-dried tomato. Tight as shit. If you started digging today, you wouldn’t get past the first layer until next weekend. Huge complexity, huge potential, great balance of everything. A love affair between restraint & banging ripeness, for lack of better words.

J. Confuron-Cotetidot Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Lavaut St. Jacques 2011 (Price: S$150)
Ah, enter Brett. We didn’t see a lot of this during the evening, but here it comes in full on. The fruit doesn’t appear in fresh form, but rather in a heavily dried character. Silky smooth texture with hints of earth, mushrooms and baking spices on the palate. Medium body and acidity. Slightly bitter finish. Not the most exciting example of Burgundy, but definitely the most expensive one.

Sokol Blosser ‘Estate Cuvée’ Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2012 (Price: S$97)
The abundance of black fruit here is next level and is nicely blended with notes of asparagus and hibiscus. Rich, full-bodied, medium alcohol and acidity. Bit of Brett (this was obviously the Brett flight) which flows nicely in the river of fruit. Bold, medium finish. The only thing lacking here is complexity – it seems to stay on the primary notes and doesn’t budge further than that.

Pierre Andre Hospices de Beaune ‘Cuvee Fouquerand’ Savigny les Beaune 1er Cru 2009 (Price: S$150)
Having a Savigny at the table is a quintessential part of every Pinot tasting. It brings out the best of both worlds – power & density on one hand, elegance & fruitiness on the other. This one had plenty of the latter and was much leaner than most of the Burgundies we tasted. Well-balanced, accent on the freshness, but doesn’t fall behind on complexity. Nice.

Sokol Blosser ‘Big Tree Block’ Pinot Noir 2013 (Price: S$115)
If this stands out with anything, it is definitely the truckload of reduction on the nose. Anybody that thinks decanting a Pinot is blasphemy should drink this straight from the bottle. Who’s laughing now? Comes to life on the palate with concentration on rich black fruit, sweet spices, coffee and some herbs. Medium-bodied, decent weight, long finish.

Domaine Maratray-Dubreuil Corton Bressandes Grand Cru 2013 (Price: S$90)
Shame on me, but this is the first time I smell curry leaves and roasted mustard seeds in a wine. Must have something to do with being Eastern European. Ripeness and leanness meet again in a gorgeous tango, but the complexity seems to fall behind. Usually, Burgundies develop in the glass by the hour, this one did not. Still, an interesting find. Ok, maybe not for 90 bucks.

Cristom ‘Jessie Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2015 (Price: S$78)
Ending the evening the way we started it. Lovely Pinot offering bright aromas of red/black berry fruit, black tea, hints of gunflint and brushes of vanilla & nutmeg. Crisp, complex and well-balanced. Some stem inclusion, but not overplayed for a second. Long finish that lasts even after tasting 15 wines. Looking forward to drinking this again, as it will age beautifully in the years to come.

Written by Aleksandar Draganic – grape juice drinker, educator & educatee, hardcore Bosnian on tour (currently in Singapore). Find me @grapenomad

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