Wine: Oregon Pinot Noir and Land vs. Vintner

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Terroir is a romantic concept that appeals to wine lovers when the edges of the world get a little blurry, right around that second glass of wine. We love the idea that a parcel of land produces a wonderful wine that could be made nowhere else because the soil, slope, sun exposure and microclimate would not be the same at any other place or time.

And yet we make winemakers celebrities and applaud their talent in crafting blockbuster vino.

So is it the land, or is it the hand? What makes a superlative wine?

Those questions featured prominently in two recent tastings I experienced involving Oregon pinot noir. Oregon's Willamette (Tourism bureau slogan: "Rhymes with dammit!") Valley, southwest of Portland, features two basic soil types: marine sediment from ancient ocean beds and volcanic rock from eruptions that formed the Cascade Mountain range thousands of years ago. Volcanic soils tend to be on higher elevations and are said to emphasize red fruit flavors and higher acidity. Sedimentary vineyards offer dark color, black fruit flavors and richness.

Many wines are a blend of the two, of course, but wines made primarily from volcanic soils show noticeable differences from their sedimentary cousins.

In the first tasting, in early June at Willow restaurant in Ballston, I felt land gaining the upper hand over the winemaker. The tasting featured 20 pinots made from fruit grown at Shea Vineyard in the 2006 vintage, most from wineries that had bought fruit from Shea. The vineyard, on sedimentary soil, was dubbed a U.S. "Grand Cru" site by Wine Enthusiast magazine in October 2002.

Halfway through the tasting I nearly complained that the wines all tasted alike, but of course that was the point. There were subtle differences, centered primarily on alcohol levels: The wines ranged from 13.5 percent to 15.1 percent, with those above 14.5 percent tending to be unbalanced and dull. Pinot noir should not be so heavy.

The second tasting was in mid-July at the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore., in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Five winemakers presented wines they had produced in 2006 using grapes from two vineyards: one primarily sedimentary soil, the other volcanic. Because the grapes were treated identically in the vineyards and picked at the same time, it was an experiment to see whether the "hand" in the winery could triumph over the land in the vineyard.

The winemakers were five of Oregon's most celebrated: Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights, Laurent Montalieu of Solena Cellars and Steve Doerner of Cristom Vineyards. It became quite apparent as we tasted that the wines were arranged by winemaker. The first wines in each of the two five-wine flights were made by the same hand, and so on.

So the hand of the winemaker seemed to be the dominant factor. Wright's were the darkest and most primordial, with a lot going on in the glass. Penner-Ash's were almost brooding, while Doerner's were more tannic (due to whole-cluster pressing, we were told). Bethel Heights's were spicy, and the Solena wines were more delicate.

Yet there was also continuity among the flights, showing the influence of the vineyards. The first flight, wines from a marine- sediment vineyard, featured black fruit flavors, such as blackberry, and some brown-sugar sweetness. They were also quite heavy. The second flight, while still not shy, featured brighter flavors that were more on the red fruit side, reflecting the volcanic soils.

Vintage is another factor determining the quality of these wines, of course. The dry season in 2006 produced powerful, bold wines as many winemakers picked later to achieve greater ripeness. In 2007, an ideal growing season turned rainy at harvest, forcing winemakers to pick unripe grapes or wait out the rains. Those who waited harvested ripe fruit without the heaviness of 2006 and produced wines of finesse rather than power.

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