2014 Raptor Ridge Estate Whole Cluster Pinot Noir
©Kevin Day

Oregon Pinot Noir Report

6 min read

Usually when I travel to a wine destination, I come home with a deeper love and appreciation for that area’s wine. Something about seeing the vines and tasting the wine closer to the source invariably leads to a deeper connection.

But upon returning from Oregon last week, I had a general feeling of being more critical and discerning about what the Willamette Valley is best known for: Pinot Noir. That’s not to say I had an unenjoyable time, or that the wine is going downhill. It’s just a natural progression: the more you know something, the more your expectations build up. (Honestly, I found the Riesling and some of the French varietals that Brianne Day is experimenting with to be more exciting).

Oregon Pinot Noir can be utterly beguiling. At its best, it can be one of those rare wines that smells and tastes like it came straight from the earth — a product of nature. But as Oregon summers get hotter and hotter, and as more winemakers hit the market, finding these gems is proving to be more difficult.

I recently outlined some guidelines for shopping for Oregon Pinot Noir, and below I’ve included notes on the five bottles of Pinot Noir that we tasted over our 10-day trip. The best individual sip of Pinot Noir came at a tasting with Trisaetum, but since it is contrary to my editorial vision to review wine by the glass, we’ll order a few bottles in the fall and review them then. (I should also note that Trisaetum’s Blanche de Noir, a white Pinot Noir, was also one of the top sips of my trip … far more interesting than many of the red Pinot Noir we tasted).

Here are a few notes.

2014 de Lancellotti “La Sorella” Pinot Noir

2014 de Lancellotti "La Sorella" Pinot NoirHere is a winemaker that I hadn’t come across online or in Colorado (where I live), and so naturally I was excited to give this wine a go on our first night.

Alas, it simply didn’t work out for me. Super rich, dense and earthy, it had intriguing notes of black cherry, chocolate and slate. But ultimately, it proved to be too alcoholic and fatiguing as the evening went by. Pinot Noir shouldn’t give you a headache, and this one did.

As noted in my last post, its best to stick with Pinot Noir under 14%.

Yamhill-Carlton AVA
Grapes: Pinot Noir 100%
Alcohol: 14.5%
Rating: ★★★ (out of five)
• Aromas, Flavor & Structure: ★★★
Food-friendliness: ★★ 1/2
• Value: ★★★

2014 Varnum “Zolnikov Vineyard” Pinot Noir

2014 Varnum "Zolnikov Vineyard" Pinot NoirSame buying strategy (i.e. “Never heard of this one …”), very different wine. Lighter and more aromatic than the de Lancellotti from night one, the Varnum Pinot Noir from the Zolnikov Vineyard was a real delight, and it held up well for several nights.

Offered an unusual mixture of notes, recalling the floral attributes of rose and lavender, hints of summer rainstorm, and even a bit of olive oil on the nose. Elegant fruit, nice cut of acidity. A great wine to partner up with the usual suspects of Pinot pairing.

Willamette Valley AVA
Grapes: Pinot Noir 100%
Alcohol: 13%
Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 (out of five)
• Aromas, Flavor & Structure: ★★★★ 1/2
Food-friendliness: ★★★★
Value: ★★★★

2010 Maysara “Asha” Pinot Noir

2010 Maysara "Asha" Pinot NoirMy father and I had a wonderful tasting at the Maysara Winery west of McMinnville. The setting is gorgeous and the cavernous tasting room has wonderful ambiance (including a beautiful Persian tapestry). The property feels very secluded, with views of the Hyland Vineyard across the valley.

We tasted several Pinot Noir, each one getting better as we got more specific with the site. Ultimately, I wanted to spend more time with the 2010 bottling called “Asha” because of its clean and sharp profile, which offered a hint of black-pepper spice and a trace of walnut. It had wonderful structure and struck me as the kind of Pinot Noir you could lay down through 2020.

McMinnville AVA
Grapes: Pinot Noir 100%
Alcohol: 13%
Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 (out of five)
• Aromas, Flavor & Structure: ★★★★ 1/2
Food-friendliness: ★★★★ 1/2
• Value: ★★★★

2014 Raptor Ridge “Duo” Pinot Noir

2014 Raptor Ridge "Duo" Pinot NoirThe Oregon winemaker that I have the most experience with is Raptor Ridge, and for good reason. Their selection of wines — both Pinot Noir and crisp, refreshing white wines such as a beautiful Grüner Veltliner — have always tasted well for me.

I swung by their tasting room again this time, as it is just down the road from my family’s favorite place in Oregon, the Smith Berry Barn. The winery takes pride in providing a habitat for raptors (who help control rodents on the property), and no kidding, as I tasted their wines I watched a hawk swooping low over the vines.

From this tasting, two Pinot Noir rose to the top, and I had a real struggle deciding which one to take with me. The Raptor Ridge Estate Whole Cluster Pinot Noir had a ton of complexity, which can be partially attributed to the inclusion of stems in the fermentation process. But the real winner was the “Duo,” which winemaker Scott Shull sourced from his two favorite barrels of the 2014 vintage.

This wine felt alive to me. The nose had incredible intensity with red berries, rosehips and a subtle meatiness to it. A substantial wine that doesn’t sacrifice its elegance. Only 60 cases were made, and the wine is not currently listed on their site, so it may only be available in the tasting room.

On a quick side note: at the Smith Berry Barn, we were introduced to tayberries, which are a unique cross between raspberries and blackberries. Straight off the vine, they taste exactly like Pinot Noir. (And I was so tempted to include “tayberry” in my tasting note, but nobody would know what I meant). Interestingly enough, after a little time off the vine, they sweeten and resemble raspberries more, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Chehalem Mountains AVA
Grapes: Pinot Noir 100%
Alcohol: 13.8%
Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 (out of five)
• Aromas, Flavor & Structure: ★★★★ 1/2
Food-friendliness: ★★★★ 1/2
• Value: ★★★★

2013 Evening Land Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

2013 Evening Land Willamette Valley Pinot NoirUpon return from Oregon, I had one last Pinot Noir to sample — a blend from around the valley from acclaimed winemaker and sommelier Rajat Parr and his label Evening Land Vineyards.

Despite the cool vintage and low alcohol, this wine was a little dull. There was the usual note of cherry and cranberry, a bit of oak-imparted vanilla, and a well-balanced amount of fruit and acidity. It was just missing something, even for a base-level bottling. Given its $26 retail price, I expected more.

Willamette Valley AVA
Grapes: Pinot Noir 100%
Alcohol: 12.8%
Rating: ★★★ (out of five)
• Aromas, Flavor & Structure: ★★★
Food-friendliness: ★★★
• Value: ★★

Other Pinot Noir That Shows Promise

2012 Trisaetum Coast Range Pinot NoirDuring my time in the Willamette Valley, I visited the tasting rooms at Maysara, Raptor Ridge, Day Wines (by appointment only, tasting room under construction), Penner-Ash and Trisaetum.

I only had so much room and time to buy bottles, but the following Pinot Noir showed promise during my tasting, and I’d recommend each one, even though they only got the “sip test.” Of particular note were the two from Trisaetum:

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