Oregon – the problem child, the upstart. Anything but California. Oregon is perhaps the New World’s most controversial, exciting, and downright out there Pinot Noir producing region. In fact, Oregon has built its reputation on this fickle grape, which is astonishing given the incredibly challenging climactic conditions of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Indeed, even the luminaries at UC Davis believed, back in the 60’s, that Oregon was unsuitable for growing vitis vinifera grapes. However, some argue that Pinot Noir is at its most complex when it struggles to ripen, and just reaches the threshold.
As a vine growing and wine making region, Oregon began with a few key pioneers who took the time to research the best sites and the best way to properly ripen the grapes in the very wet and mild summer climate. These included David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyard and Dick Erath of Erath. It was, in fact, Lett’s 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir that was the first wine in the state to do well in a blind tasting with wines from France. Things have changed since then, however, with the old clones being torn out and replaced now with Dijon clones (which are believed to be of much higher quality). While Oregon has grown and changed, the spirit of its winemakers has not. There are very few giant corporate wineries; instead, most are simple unpretentious affairs, fueled by passions rather than egos.
Because of the cyclical influence of the El Nino and La Nina weather events, Oregon has unpredictable vintage conditions. In fact, I would say that Oregon is a place for a winemaker to test his or her skills because making consistent wines across the massive vintage variation that the state sees takes tremendous effort and dedication. This wine, compared to a 2006 Cameron I had a few weeks ago, is a perfect testament to those variations: the 2007 is 12.5% ABV, while the 2006 was well over 14%.
The Willamette Valley is home to several sub-appellations, including the AVAs of Eola-Amity hills, Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee Hills, the most famous and the region in which Cameron is situated. Dundee Hills is famous largely because it was the original site of the Eyrie Vineyards that produced the successful Pinot Noir in the 70’s. The region is characterized by loam hills, good drainage, and the right sort of exposure to rainfall and light to ensure more consistent ripening. That said, the 2007 vintage was a big problem vintage in Oregon, with heavy rains falling just as the grapes were ready to pick (this is a problem as the grapes bloat, and accordingly lose concentration). The weather was cool, however, and thus acidities ended up being quite high, and the wines have considerable fragrance. And, as with most vintages, it was not necessary to chaptalize the wines so long as the winemaker was content with a lower ABV of around 12%.
Cameron is somewhat of an iconic winery in Oregon. However, it is difficult to find much on their history and development. Typically quite difficult to find, Cameron has decided to reduce their carbon footprint, and thus did not renew their allocations on the east coast, instead preferring to find outlets closer by. Luckily for us Vancouverites, this means that their wines are available at the local retailer Marquis Wine Cellars, who exclusively bring them into the province.
The wine itself is dramatically different both from the Pinot Noirs I have tasted to date in this series, and from the 2006 Pinot Noirs I had at a dinner with Sean a few weeks ago. Whereas the 2006s were big, ripe, rich and dense, this 2007 is reserved, acidic, lean, and bright. I am actually quite happy to find such a significant vintage variation, although I must admit that this particular 2007 simply cannot compare in complexity to the 2006 Cameron Abbey Ridge that we had that night. Instead, this brings aromatics of toast, nuts, red berries, and earth. It is not overly complex, but it does gain considerable expression with air. The palate is challenging right now, with a definite tartness and bright, almost unripe, strawberry and raspberry fruit. The earthy undertones are nice, but I think the fragrance on this wine is a bit more interesting than its palate. It simply lacks some integration, and perhaps has such high acidity that it is difficult to appreciate without food. In fact, I would say that this is, primarily, a food wine, and should not be consumed on its own. Food brings out some sweetness and mellows the acidity quite a bit. A take what you can kind of wine.
$45 at Marquis
If anything, what this wine taught me was that Oregon has some pretty massive vintage variation, and that, in itself, is pretty exciting. I expect quality will continue to improve over the next several years and the wines I’ve had so far promise great things. As of yet, I have not had an Oregon Pinot Noir that shakes the foundations of my wine-soaked palate, but I know that it will happen one day.