A Day in Oregon: Tasting the Dundee Hills

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I suitably headed off to Portland a week after tasting through a wide range of premier and grand cru Burgundies and spent a day in the Dundee Hills AVA, arguably Oregon’s most famous sub-appellation. Dundee Hills is home to some of Oregon’s largest and most recognizeable wineries – and yet true to Oregonian style, even the biggest wineries are humble by California standards and leave room for their smaller neighbours.

Serenity at Serene: Bad Puns and Good Pinot

Domaine Serene makes challenging wine, even by Oregon standards. These are not wines that cater to lovers of fruit bomby alcohol or sappy sweet Pinot. Rather, these are balanced, elegant and sophisticated wines that are amongst the best Pinots being made in the New World.

I had the opportunity to try three pinots, two of which were blends from multiple sites, composed via barrel selection to meet the desired style for the bottling. The 2008 Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir was the more bright and high toned of the two, with the 2007 Evenstad Reserve offering a spicy complexity and cool mineral underside. Both of these wines add a savoriness to the fruit that adds layers of complexity that most Oregon Pinots don’t quite get to.

The 2008 Jerusalem Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir was an exceptional wine, with real character, balance and, again, sophistication. The wine still has a level of austerity that may make it difficult for some to apprecaite for now, and 2008’s structure is showing through in some firm yet ripe tannins that will assuredly mellow into silk with a few years of bottle age. This was a great wine, even at $75.

The 2008 Cote Sud Vineyard Chardonnay was an exciting surprise in that most Oregon Chards do not have this level of depth and complexity and serious minerality. You could mistake this wine for a very good Cote d’Or Blanc, which is saying something. And at $45 it is fairly priced even if not a value.

Drinking Drouhin: Burgundy in Oregon

Drouhin’s entrance into Oregon was a hallmark event that signalled the Willamette Valley had grabbed the world’s attention. Drouhin, who is one of Burgundy’s biggest and most famous Negociants, believed that Oregon had such potential he would lend his name to a winery focused on a simple portfolio of four wines: a chardonnay, rose, basic Pinot and winemaker’s reserve Pinot – the Laurene.

While the Arthur Chardonnay and Rose are decidedly disappointing wines, the two pinots are both impressive, with the edge going to the Laurene reserve, even if they are extremely fruit forward and seem to be creeping up in alcohol over time. They were my least favourite wines of the day, but were of an undeniable quality despite the more mass appeal approach. This is a far cry from Napa Valley.

A Family Affair: Winter’s Hill

In an extreme contrast to both Domaine Serene and Domaine Drouhin, Winter’s Hill is a true family run operation, with one of the co-owners pouring wine personally and with her and her husband’s daughter in law (who studied wine making in Beaune) being the winemaker.

Winter’s Hill didn’t make the best Pinot Noirs I tasted during the day, but they may have made the most down to earth. These are wines that reflect the simplicity and humility of the family making the wines – and yet they show a sophistication in which one can easily detect the influence of Burgundy on Winter’s Hill’s winemaker. The wines are also highly reflective of vintage, even though some of them do use innoculated yeasts, and each of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 estate Pinots we tasted were restrained and balanced without any sign of greenness.

Personally I thought the 2008 Winemaker’s Cuvee (made with 100% Pommard clones) to be the most exciting of the wines, combining both beautifully pure fruit, serious structure and a basic humility. At $39 (and $29 for the regular bottlings), these are Pinots worth tasting.

The Rose State Winery: Drinking on the Dragon’s Bluff

The last winery I visited is also one of my personal favourites: White Rose. All of these wines were outstanding, though the 2008 vintage needs time in the bottle before drinking, even for the basic wine. The flagship Dundee Hills Estate bottling had tremendous complexity but more forwardness and fruit than the Domaine Serene wines. All of White Rose’s wines are fermented with at least partial whole cluster, which adds a structure and distinct spiciness that is not found in most Pinots from Oregon. These wines certainly compete for the most delicious in the state, which explains why fruit from White Rose (which was planted in 1980) used to be sold to some of the best wineries in the state, such as Torii Mor. White Rose converted to its own winery in the early 2000’s and is quickly moving towards the upper echelons.

I honestly love all the wines from this winery, including the various single vineyard bottlings, the top estate blend and the entry level estate wine. The only wine that hits a bit under what I was expecting was the basic “Willamette Valley” Pinot, which is made with both purchased and estate fruit. I’d also note that the 2009’s are also drinking great and would be good wines to pick up while you wait for the 2008’s to come into their prime.

Conclusion

My day in the Dundee Hills was a fascinating and tasty adventure. I discovered that Oregon is definitely making delicious wine that reflects the unique terroir of the AVA (Dundee Hills Pinot tastes dramatically different from those of Ribbon Ridge, which I visted 9 months ago). I also (re)discovered, however, that the comparisons of Oregon with Burgundy are a bit misleading – most of Oregon’s Pinots don’t have quite the layering and sophistication of the best of Burgundy. However, Oregon Pinot is more consistently approachable and accessibly fruited. Even so, Oregon Pinot may still be an acquired taste for some. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Oregon is on a very long term trajectory to greatness and is amongst the very few New World regions that I believe will eventually compete with the greatest of the old world for diversity, depth and sophistication.

Of all the above wines, those of Drouhin are available at the BCLDB, those of White Rose are available at Kits Wine, and Domaine Serene pops up here and there at private stores. Winter’s Hill is not currently available in the province.

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