If a big, lush cabernet sauvignon is your winter parka, and a delicate rosé your summer togs, then Oregon pinot noir is that versatile, stylish sweater that carries you through spring. Lithe, vibrant, and fresh, these pale ruby pours, full of tangy cherry and leafy soil aromas, are what we crave with this season’s suppers. Because these bottles emphasize bright acidity and moderate alcohol, they are naturals with food. Lucky for us, Oregon’s winemaking pioneers ignored the naysayers who said it could not be done.
Before the 1960s, experts doubted that Vitis vinifera grapes could grow well in the Beaver State. But trailblazers like David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath — all of whom trained at the University of California at Davis, the state’s premier enology program — believed differently and ventured north to Willamette Valley. Those pioneers had faith that pinot noir, the finicky, quintessential Burgundian red grape, would thrive in Oregon’s cool and cloudy climate.
Efforts were rewarded when Lett’s The Eyrie Vineyards pinot noir won top honors at the Gault & Millau French Wine Olympiades in 1979. This region caught the eye of Burgundy wine merchant Robert Drouhin, who within the decade purchased land in Willamette Valley and established a world-class winery. International recognition for these bottles continued to grow.
Today, this verdant Pacific Northwest state boasts a $2.7 billion wine industry with more than 460 wineries that have put Oregon pinot noir on the map. The story of how these wines have come so far, so fast has much to do with the tightly knit community of small-scale producers (on average, each produces just 5,000 cases a year), who are obsessed with quality and sustainable practices, biodynamic and organic certifications among them. These producers are big on collaboration, gathering every year for the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium and hosting Oregon Pinot Camp to educate the trade. The last weekend in July, consumers join producers to fete their favorite grape at the International Pinot Noir Celebration.
This month, we look at bottles $25 and under, primarily from Willamette Valley. We had already tasted $30 to $40 bottles, so we were curious about the value-priced category. Of the five we recommend, two emerged as favorites. Montinore Estate “Estate Reserve” 2010, full of nuanced aromas and a bright fruit palate, is a testament to patience in the vineyard. That summer — the coolest on record in 20 years — was followed by rains before a streak of fall sunshine coaxed grapes to full ripeness. Illahe Vineyards, taking advantage of a long growing season in 2011, picked grapes in November and crafted a wine with supple cherry, notes of earth, and admirable finesse.
Oregon pinot noir is a stylish addition to the table. It’s what fashionable glasses are donning this spring.
Firesteed Pinot Noir Oregon 2010 This light-as-air picnic wine blooms with tart cherry and stony aromas after a vigorous swirl. Enjoy with chicken salad on arugula. Around $18. At Blanchards Wine & Spirits, Marshfield, 781-834-9068; Pembroke Center Liquors, Pembroke, 781-293-9665.
Amity Estate Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2010 Tangy cherry, sweet oak spice, and soil aromas emerge after an initial whiff of green. Attractive floral notes undergird fruit. Pair with creamy robiola cheese and crudites. Around $23.
At Route 1 Liquor Mart, Foxborough, 508-660-3077; A Taste for Wine & Spirits, Cohasset, 781-383-0058.
Montinore Estate “Estate Reserve” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2010 Nuanced aromas of mint, high-toned cherry, and freshly dug soil lead to lithe acidity, bright fruit, and refined oak spice. Serve alongside herb-rubbed leg of lamb. Around $25. At Dave’s Fresh Pasta, Somerville, 617-623-0867; Yankee Spirits, Swansea, 508-672-8400.
Cooper Mountain Vineyards Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2011 Ripe aromas of blueberry and cherry point to ripe fruit, undergirded by lively tartness. Supple food-friendly tannins call out for thick-cut pork chops. Around $21. Brix Wine Shop, South End, 617-542-2749, ext. 1; Shubie’s, Marblehead, 781-631-0149.
Illahe Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2011 Pure and vibrant with aromas of cherry, leafy soil, and appetizing earthy notes. Smooth tannins and lip-smacking acidity make this a wonderful pairing with rich salmon. Around $22. At Winchester Wine & Spirits, Winchester, 781-721-5900; Idylwilde Farms, Acton, 978-263-5943.