WINEMAG.COM – No single place grows every grape variety equally well. Moreover, grapes know nothing about imaginary lines like state borders. In the Pacific Northwest, enterprising winemakers reach into neighboring states to tap great vineyard sources and craft compelling wines.
South to Oregon
For half a century, Washington’s winegrowers have been an irresistible force, consistently proving the experts wrong. Since the state began its long march toward recognition as a world-class wine region, vintners there have expanded the range of viable grapes. First, it was Riesling, then other cool-climate whites, followed by more southern reds and whites from France, Italy and Spain.
One grape, however, has proven to be an immovable object here: Pinot Noir.
Decades ago, Oregon claimed Pinot Noir as its signature variety. But in Washington, it has proved vexing. With few exceptions—mostly sparkling wines or the occasional rosé—Pinot Noir has been a bust in the Columbia Valley. Nor has it thrived in western Washington, despite some 40 years of trying.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? No fewer than a dozen Washington winemakers have taken on that challenge. Each tackles Pinot Noir in small-lot, experimental projects. The catch? They purchase and, in some instances, plant grapes in Oregon.
The importance of these projects can’t be denied. There are several top-tier winemakers behind them, and a few have even bigger plans.
John Abbott left Abeja Winery in Walla Walla to ultimately build Devona, a winery in Oregon. Chris Figgins has released several vintages of his Toil Oregon project while he continued to make Washington-based Leonetti Cellar and Figgins Family wines. He recently purchased land and planted a vineyard in the Chehalem Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA). Mark McNeilly (Mark Ryan Winery) has debuted four wines under the brand name Megan Anne.
David O’Reilly, who founded Oregon’s Owen Roe winery but also made Washington wines, has moved to Yakima Valley, but continues to produce a stellar lineup of Oregon Pinots. Jon Meuret (Maison Bleue), Chris Sparkman (Sparkman Cellars), Chris Dowsett (Buty) and Rob Newsom (Boudreaux) all have Oregon Pinots queued up.
For Newsom, Dowsett, Figgins and Abbott, hauling the grapes back to their facilities in Washington State can be a seven-hour drive that must be done in a single day, after the grapes are picked. For some, it is a labor of love.
“Pinot Noir was my first wine love, and it’s like seeing an old, old friend,” says Abbott. “I love its expressiveness, combined with its ability to reach flavor maturity at lower sugar levels. I also love the challenge of making it the best it can be in the toughest of vintages.”
For Figgins, the answer is a long-standing love of Oregon Pinot, going back some 15 years.
“I made small practice lots in 2010 and 2011. I started casually, and then seriously, kicking dirt and dreaming about planting a vineyard there,” he says.
That vineyard is now reality, with the first six acres planted last year. An onsite winery is also planned.
Meuret, who built a reputation focused on Rhône varieties, is also onto Pinot. He says that the transition wasn’t that difficult.
“My style of winemaking has always had a Burgundian approach to it,” he says. “In some ways, I was already producing Pinot Noir [stylistically], but in fact, I was using Grenache or Syrah.”
For Dowsett, it’s a return to his winemaking roots when he worked on the family vineyard on the old Charles Coury property (now David Hill winery). Now, with grapes from his sister’s vineyard on Pete’s Mountain, he has a rosé in limited release and a full-on Pinot Noir in the bottle for spring.
Along with the distance involved, another challenge: Federal labeling regulations do not allow Washington winemakers to use anything but Oregon as an appellation on any wines vinified in Washington.
O’Reilly, of Owen Roe, avoids that problem, as he makes his Pinots in Oregon. He says that his move into Washington has had a positive impact.
“It actually changes the mindset slightly,” he says. “If there’s any take-home message looking at producing Pinot Noir from a Washington perspective, it’s that this grape is so much more delicate than Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. We are fixated on processing cooler fruit than before, that will retain more whole berries in fermentation in order to have texture and perfume.”
Despite the challenges, these producers make excellent wines, and they put a bit of a Washington spin on Oregon grapes. The immovable object, though not entirely displaced, has at least budged.
Paul Gregutt, Wine Enthusiast