I am a proud Californian. My favorite author is John Steinbeck, my favorite flower is the California poppy, and I love Mexican food. However, I can’t get behind everything Californian, especially when that thing is Pinot Noir.
There are great examples of California Pinot Noir–for instance, the illustrious Sea Smoke and the much more affordable Belle Glos “Meiomi”–but I have found that too many are high-alcohol, big-bodied wines that hurt my palate. I mean, of all wines Pinot freakin’ Noir is supposed to be easy to drink, right?
Enter, stage north, Oregonian Pinot Noir to steal the show and save the day.
As a general rule, Oregon winemakers subscribe to Old World virtues such as restraint and elegance. Their Pinot Gris is more Alsatian in character than Italian, and their Pinot Noir is positively Burgundian.
Part of this has to do with Oregon’s cooler, wetter climate, which lends itself to the more classical French style of winemaking. But much of this also has to do with the winemakers’ philosophies on what wine should be.
I had the chance to taste some of this philosophy in action at a tasting of Stangeland Vineyards & Winery, held at Planet Wine. Also at the tasting was Larry Miller, the president and winemaker at Stangeland.
Stangeland is a pioneer of Oregon wine, having planted a vineyard at the current Eola-Amity Hills AVA in 1978. Eola-Amity Hills, which is contained entirely within the larger Willamette Valley AVA, is a very new AVA, having been designated in 2006. Stangeland focuses on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. I tried a number of the winery’s Pinot Noirs, in addition to one of their Chards and a Pinot Gris.
- 2008 Chardonnay | very racy, clean, with bright lemon notes. I loved this wine because it had only a trace of oak (from large, neutral oak barrels) and was simply refreshing. A steal at around $18.
- 2009 Pinot Gris | this was the hands-down favorite white among the ten or so female tasters that evening. Fruity-sweet, with good acid and medium body, this Pinot Gris gives American Pinot Gris a good name.
- 2009 Oregon Pinot Noir | the winery’s basic Pinot, this is a solid wine on par with a good Bourgogne. Floral aromatics, red fruit. A bit of bitterness, however, that I couldn’t place.
- 2008 Miller’s Vineyard Pinot Noir | a single-vineyard Pinot, this was light, with savory notes and red cherries. This was one of my favorites of the evening, and it showed even better at a dinner to which I brought a bottle.
- 2009 Vermeer Vineyard Pinot Noir | named after the artist, this vineyard yielded the grapes that made this wonderful wine. A sauvage wine–with earthy, gamy notes and darker red fruit. This was my favorite wine of the evening.
- 2008 Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir | oakier and bigger than the other Pinots, with a good tannic grip.
All of the wines were restrained and balanced and would not be out of place in a Paris bistro. If you want to “buy American” you would be well-advised to seek out Stangeland’s offerings.
But the wines weren’t the only highlight of the evening. I managed to talk to Larry about his wines, about the land, pruning techniques, global warming, soil composition, and how he came to winemaking. It seems his parents, both schoolteachers, had purchased the land back in the ’60s. Interestingly enough, his mother doesn’t drink, though she did enjoy a glass of her son’s wines from time to time. If they tasted then as they did at Planet Wines, I can see why.