Relief may be in sight for lovers of red French burgundy tired of paying top dollar for erratic quality. In the rolling hills south of Portland, Ore., a small group of viticultural pioneers have discovered a topography and climate resembling those of Burgundy and Alsace in France and have planted grape varieties indigenous to those two regions -- with encouraging results.
Though the pinot noir -- the grape responsible for the great red burgundies of France -- had been widely planted in American vineyards for some time, it had stubbornly refused to yield anything remotely similar to those velvety, rich wines from across the Atlantic. Imaginative wine writers had a field day likening the flavors of various American pinot noirs to everything from barnyards to rubber boots.
Then, something happened. In 1979 and 1980, at two blind wine tastings held in France, an American pinot noir was chosen over many highly-regarded and very expensive French burgundies. If that were not horrifying enough, the pinot noir was from Oregon -- the Eyrie Vineyards 1975. Not since the breach of the Maginot line had the French been so humbled. While California cabernet sauvignon had established itself as a worthy challenger to the better bordeaux, a pinot noir -- from Oregon, no less -- challenging first-class French burgundies strained the imagination of most wine lovers here and abroad.
Well, I dismissed the results of these tastings as mere aberrations and decided to visit Oregon as soon as convenient to assure myself that the 1975 Eyrie was not representative. I have just returned from that long-delayed visit, and am surprised and pleased to report that Oregon pinot noirs indeed merit serious attention from wine drinkers.
Oregon winemakers have matched the pinot noir with a cool climate and a topography providing good drainage and exposure. These environmental factors combined with a dedication to high-quality winemaking are resulting in wines of considerable distinction -- some of which are already available in Washington, others which will be on shelves here soon.
The cool climate of the region may be the key to the quality of the wines. A study by the University of California at Davis indicates that moderately cool weather, where ripening proceeds slowly, results in higher natural acidity, more color and generally higher quality in dry table wines. And, when exposed to such a climate where it can ripen slowly, the pinot noir seems to provide a more complex, elegant and lighter wine.
If there is a climatic drawback at all, it is the fear that the grapes might not ripen sufficiently before the rainy winter weather sets in, making winemaking here a somewhat risky business. Yet the natives are optimistic about the future of this pinot paradise of the Pacific Northwest.
"Fifty years from now," predicts David Lett of Eyrie Vineyard, "there won't be a pinot noir vine in California. They'll all be here in Oregon."
One is struck by the enthusiasm of these pioneer winemakers, many of whom left other professions for the call of the grape. Dr. Joe Campbell at Elk Cove Vineyards still practices medicine two days a week. Dick Erath at Knudsen-Erath and Richard Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards were both engineers before turning their attentions to the precise science of winemaking -- Erath as an electrical engineer and Ponzi as a teacher of mechanical engineering. And Dave Lett at Eyrie was on the verge of entering a California dental school when he decided to pack up 3,000 vines and move them via pick-up truck north to Oregon.
Oregon has consumer-oriented labeling laws which should serve an example to other states as well as to federal authorities. According to regulation, a wine must contain 90 percent of a grape variety before the vineyard can place that variety name on the label. (In constrast, the generally applicable federal standard is 51 percent.) Also, Oregon prohibits the misleading practice of naming wine after famous European wine regions such as Burgundy, Chablis or Champagne. Federal regulations, on the other hand, usually permit this practice. Oregon winemakers with whom I spoke welcome these strict regulations, feeling they will increase public confidence in wines from their state.
I tasted a number of very fine wines at Ponzi, Knudsen-Erath, Eyrie, Elk Cove and Tualatin. The most exciting was the Knudsen-Erath 1979 pinot noir "reserve." This is a big wine which, though too young presently, shows promise of complexity, richness and that silkiness one expects from the best burgundies. The Elk Cove 1979 "Vintage Select" pinot noir was also a memorable wine, with full fruit and sufficient structure for a long life. MacArthur Liquors distributes Knudsen-Erath, and Elk Cove will soon be distributed by The Robert Haas Company, which means it hopefully will be available in Washington soon.