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America’s Burgundy? Oregon’s Value Pinot Shows the Way

Applying the word “value” to Oregon Pinot Noir may seem like a bit of a stretch. Prices for most limited–production Oregon Pinots hover between $40 and $50 and head up from there.

That’s not to say you can’t hunt down a bottle for $15 or $18 that is labeled Oregon Pinot Noir. You can even find it in boxes and cans. But value is not just about price, and finding high-quality, low-cost Oregon Pinot Noir can be a challenge.

Why are prices so high? Pinot Noir from anywhere is often more expensive than other varietal red wines because it’s difficult to grow and challenging to vinify. It often does best in cool-climate regions on the margins of viability, where dangers such as spring frosts, midsummer hailstorms and early autumn freezes mean that not every vintage achieves optimal ripeness.

There are relatively few places scattered around the world where Pinot Noir not only succeeds, but makes wines that rival the quality of those from Burgundy. Oregon is one of them.

“Historically, bargain Pinot Noir wasn’t really a thing because it was generally associated with awful, uninspiring wine,” says Tony Soter of Soter Vineyards and Planet Oregon. “Pinot is an unforgiving grape and not generous with its charms.

“No producer can long afford to offer sub-$20 wines without relying on a grape supply that is based on high yields, which lowers the raw material costs. High-yield Pinot Noir gets pretty vapid and pathetically weak in color, which is obviously not very satisfying.”

Nonetheless, Planet Oregon is one of a growing number of top-tier Oregon wineries that offer Pinot Noir priced well below their estate-grown or vineyard-designated bottles.

Controlling Cost

“Two forces are driving more affordable quality Pinots,” says Mike Landt of River’s Edge Winery. “The vines are, on average, getting older, and I have always thought that the quality of wine increases as a vineyard ages.

“Secondly, the distribution situation is getting very competitive. I suspect because of the intense competition for distributors, people are working at getting quality in their most competitive bottlings. The vast majority of our distributors have only been interested in our least expensive bottling.”

“Our $20 Pinot Noir is made the same way as our $60 Pinot Noir with regard to sourcing and fermentation.” —Brent Stone

According to Damian Davis of Portlandia Vintners, a combination of factors contributes to this push. These include good to great weather over the past eight years, more plantings in areas of lower-cost farming, like the south Willamette Valley, Umpqua and Rogue Valley, and camaraderie among those in the Oregon wine community.

“From vineyard management to winemaking, we continue to learn and get better,” says Davis. “In addition to improved tools, techniques and technology, there’s an amazing cooperation…to make the very best Pinot Noir we can at all price points.”

For Oregon Pinot Noir, the bar is set pretty high. One important factor, says King Estate COO/Winemaker Brent Stone, is the state’s strict labeling standards.

“In order for a wine to be labeled ‘Willamette Valley,’ at least 95% of the grapes must be sourced from the Willamette Valley,” he says. “In addition, at least 90% must be Pinot Noir. This differs from the federal standard, which only requires 75% of the wine to be Pinot Noir.

“The looser federal standard can often result in the blending of Syrah and other varieties in Pinots from other regions. This can be done to reduce cost or to make a Pinot seem riper and perhaps more consumer friendly. While this is an acceptable practice in most cases, it can result in the loss of varietal character and the elegance that many people look for in Pinot Noir.”

oregon vineyard
Soter Vineyards / Photo by Andrea Johnson

The Vineyard Factor

Wines that express the particular strengths of both the grape and growing area begin with well-ripened fruit. There should be complex aromas and a good balance among the mixed flavor components, principally fruit, acid, tannin and barrel.

Look for a full spectrum of sensory inputs, from the first sniff to a lingering finish that neither quits too soon nor turns bitter, medicinal or vegetal. The best wines bring up subtle details that compound long after that first sip has been swallowed.

That’s a lot to ask of a $25 wine, but from the right vintage and a particularly good vineyard, or a winemaker with a gift for blending, it’s not impossible to find.

Vintages that produce high yields and evenly ripened grapes will generate more and better inexpensive cuvées, and Oregon vintners have seen those conditions in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018. Most of the wines featured here come from the last couple of vintages. In many instances, these bargains are given the same exceptional care as their more expensive stablemates.

“Ours is appellation Willamette Valley, and it damn well better be a fine representation of the quintessential Oregon Pinot Noir,” — Tony Soter

“Our $20 Pinot Noir is made the same way as our $60 Pinot Noir with regard to sourcing and fermentation,” says Stone. “In addition to our own estate vineyard, we have longstanding partnerships with some of Willamette Valley’s most respected growers. We ferment every block from every vineyard as a standalone wine. This small-lot separation continues all the way to barrel and is maintained as the wines age.

“From there, our winemaking team grades each lot and assigns it to a program. We reserve a handful of the best barrels for our vineyard designates and the balance goes to our wholesale wines.”

Soter’s Planet Oregon wines are made from certified sustainably-grown grapes, many of which are organically grown.

“We like to work with growers who have made plantings that optimize the possibilities for growing quality at relatively high yields,” says Soter. “This means high density and mechanization. We have adopted mechanical harvesting and nearly perfected it over the last decade. So, we get destemming in the field in the process of picking, which delivers grapes in small vats suitable for fermentation with no extra processing at the winery.

“This is super-efficient compared to conventional approaches and saves us money that we can apply to growing better, lower-yielding fruit for more flavor and personality. All our Planet Oregon Pinot is barrel aged in used French oak. These barrels are handed down from our exclusive Estate wines program that uses new oak every vintage.”

oregon winery
King Estate / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Pinot Noir’s Rising Star

Pinot Noir accounts for roughly 60% of all planted vineyard acreage in Oregon, and two-thirds of all wine grapes grown in the Willamette Valley. Bottles labeled simply “Oregon” are most often made with grapes from Southern Oregon American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), where warmer climates produce higher yields. These can be pleasantly fruity and fresh tasting, though they often lack complexity and detail. Inexpensive Pinots labeled “Willamette Valley” are harder to find but will generally bring a more profound tasting experience.

“Ours is appellation Willamette Valley, and it damn well better be a fine representation of the quintessential Oregon Pinot Noir,” says Soter.

At Portlandia, Davis emphasizes the similarities between the Willamette Valley and Burgundy.

“While the soils are different, we’re climate cousins with Burgundy,” he says. “The soils in Burgundy are generally richer in limestone, imparting more minerality to the wines, but the Pinot Noirs from Burgundy and the Willamette Valley have much in common. Warm days and cool nights in both regions produce Pinot Noirs with similar color, expression of fruit, earthy tones and other nuanced characteristics.”

King Estate’s Inscription Pinot Noir is made from 100% Willamette Valley grapes.

“As a result, the wine is varietally correct, complex and food-friendly—all of the characteristics you would expect from a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at any price point,” says Stone.

Along with cost and complexity, finding value wines with reasonably good availability presents another challenge. The vast majority of Oregon’s 800-plus wineries produce less than 5,000 cases. Also, the common practice to bottle many different Pinots from the same vintage, with distinctions based upon individual vineyards, blocks and clones, means that most selections will be limited to a few hundred cases.

Davis cites May data from market research company Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) that shows the state’s Pinot Noir sales up 21% year over year in the U.S., while California Pinot Noir sales are up just 8%.

“As Oregon’s annual production continues to grow, demand for Oregon Pinot Noir is quite high,” says Davis. “Even with warmer vintages or higher yields, there is very little to zero availability of bulk wine in the market. That’s a point of difference between Oregon and California. We’re still relatively small, and there is little-to-none excess Pinot Noir.”

That’s what makes it all the more remarkable that there are plenty of widely available 90-plus-point selections that have earned the coveted Editors’ Choice label. Take a look at the list below for 10 to try now.

oregon vineyard
Maysara Vineyards / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Top 10 Oregon Pinots for Value

Evesham Wood 2018 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 92 points. Even in a Pinot portfolio packed with value, this may top them all. Pinpoint balance spotlights spicy berry fruit, ripe and well managed tannins, and surprising length. The herbal highlights are properly constrained, and the finish suggests that it could even age further for up to five years. Editors’ Choice.

Foris 2018 Estate Grown Pinot Noir (Rogue Valley); $20, 91 points. Lovely aromatics introduce a wine loaded with pretty cherry fruit and dappled with cinnamon. More scents conjure up sandalwood and light toast, and the elegance and detail throughout are rarely found in a wine at this price point. Editors’ Choice.

Ken Wright 2017 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 91 points. Ken Wright’s most affordable Pinot Noir is back in good supply, and just as aromatic and beautifully structured as ever. It starts out on the lean side, hinting at rhubarb but rolling into riper raspberry and spicy plum fruit. The herbs have a peppery bite, and the overall impression is of a complex and layered wine. Editors’ Choice.

King Estate 2018 Inscription Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $20, 91 points. This new project from the estate offers ample production and a savvy price point. Best of all, it’s mighty tasty. Aged in 30% new oak, this wine ripples in blackberry and black raspberry flavors, balanced by fresh acidity and ripe tannins. Editors’ Choice.

Moving North 2017 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $16, 91 points. This new label, from importer Vintus, is a sleeper wine made by Vintus client Ponzi Vineyards. Included are grapes from Ponzi’s Aurora and Avellana vineyards, as well as fruit from Lazy River, Bieze and Zenith, all marquee sites. Fermented and aged principally in stainless steel, this is a silky, soft and spicy wine, with a burst of cinnamon and hot-pepper candy. The ripe berry-fruit flavors are pretty and plentiful, and there’s just a touch of milk chocolate woven through the finish. Editors’ Choice.

River’s Edge 2016 Elkton Cuvée Pinot Noir (Elkton Oregon); $20, 91 points. Never short on alcohol, River’s Edge wines nonetheless strike a delicious balance and have the sort of appeal (including the price) that should attract fans in droves. Black fruits are streaked with flavors of dark chocolate and a dash of cinnamon. The tannins are beautifully ripe and smooth, and there’s a finishing taste of espresso. Editors’ Choice.

Compton Family 2018 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 90 points. Previously bottled under the Spindrift Cellars label, this has been rebranded as Compton Family, with the same winemaker and ownership. Fragrant and inviting, this has scents of pollen and flavors of ripe raspberries and sweet maraschino cherries. Though not a big wine, the concentration is sufficient and the herbs are lightly shown. All in all, quite pleasurable and a fine value. Editors’ Choice.

Portlandia 2018 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 90 points. This Pinot Noir includes 30% Hyland Vineyard fruit. Brisk black-cherry scents and flavors come with a roasted, grilled quality. Those charred notes carry over into the finish, which is surprisingly substantial for a wine at this price. Editors’ Choice.

Samuel Robert 2019 Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $16, 90 points. Most reserves at this price point fail to justify the distinction, but given that Samuel Robert’s regular Pinot is four dollars cheaper, and given that this has seriously good varietal flavors of blackberries, savory herbs, cola, a touch of bitter thistle and even some earthy minerality, what’s not to like? Complexity and authenticity, along with Willamette Valley credentials, make this a peerless value. Editors’ Choice.

Soter 2018 Planet Oregon Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 90 points. Planet Oregon is the value brand from Soter Vineyards, offering exceptional quality at an affordable price. Scents of raspberries laced with pine needles greet you with light and pretty flavors of rhubarb and raspberry, along with more of that pine-forest accent. It’s a delightful wine for near-term enjoyment, with enough tannins to show some grip through the finish. Editors’ Choice.