Scaling the Pacific heights for a decent bottle of wine

Bernard Lacroute of Willakenzie.
Bernard Lacroute of Willakenzie.
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Christine Austin goes hunting for fine wines – and a table for dinner – during a return visit to Oregon.

I suppose it was my fault really. Visiting Adelsheim winery in Oregon I was so fascinated by the history of grape growing in this lovely state that the tasting overran by several hours. David Adelsheim, one of the founding fathers of the Oregon wine industry, was full of stories so it was well into the evening when we emerged from the tasting room to find dinner.

In my head was the picture of those early days – essentially sheep and fruit growing country, gradually planted to vines in the 1960s and 70s. “There was nothing here, not even a McDonald’s,” said David, who farms more than 200 acres and produces 45,000 cases of wine.

The industry has expanded dramatically and now boasts 500 wineries while Oregon wines, in particular its world-class Pinot Noir, can be found in almost every wine shop. The main region for grapes, the Willamette Valley, is a now a tourism hot-spot, which brings me back to the hunt for dinner.

We pitched up at the local upmarket restaurant and walked in. Everyone knew David. Many of the diners came over to say hello, even the maître d’ fussed around. But could we get a table? No. This place was full of locals and tourists all enjoying the fine produce and wine that has become the signature of Oregon. We should have booked.

We ended up at the local bistro – perfectly good, and with an excellent bottle of Oregon Pinot to accompany it, but it does show how just a small group of people, with dedication and hard work, can fundamentally change the industry of a whole region.

The lush, green state of Oregon has a wine reputation that far outweighs its size and the key to its success is the climate. The term cool-climate really does apply here. Willamette Valley is south-west of Portland, around 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is tucked behind a small range of coastal hills, which give protection, but is west of the Cascades, ensuring it receives plenty of rain that falls mainly in winter. Temperatures are moderate with warm, but not hot summers.

Willamette is a region where vineyards fit into the overall landscape of forests, fruit farms and hazelnut trees. Many vineyards are small family-run properties, now with the second generation taking over. Vineyards that started out as experimental are now focused on what Oregon does best – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The first turning point for Oregon came 40 years ago at an international competition when an Oregon Pinot came third in a blind tasting of 330 of the world’s best Pinots. It made such an impact that the French started to look beyond their own slopes and one of the grandest Burgundy houses, Domaine Drouhin, bought land on the red volcanic soil of Dundee Hills, planting mainly Pinot Noir. Now another Burgundy house, Jadot, has bought land too, and while the vineyards and winery, known as Resonance, are still a work in progress their wine is gradually finding its way onto our shelves. The debut release of Resonance 2013 (£47.32, Penistone Wine Cellars) is made by Jacques Lardière who reigned over Jadot’s Burgundy cellars for most of his career. This wine definitely has a Burgundian style with delicate, savoury fruit and a long, persistence quality.

Further up the hill, Domaine Drouhin has long been the flag-bearer for Oregon Pinot in many parts of the world. Progress since my first visit over a decade ago has been dramatic. Old vineyards have been replaced with new clones, close-planted and the long black irrigation pipes that weave their way around the rows are turned off once the vines are established. This is a producer going for quality all the way from rootstock to barrels.

Head to Harrogate Fine Wine for Domaine Drouhin 2013 Pinot Noir (£23.99) for its silky, elegant, dark, black cherry fruit, or trade up to Laurène 2012, (£37.50, Concept Fine Wines) which is a barrel-selection of the best wines, for more structure, depth and finesse.

Even in Oregon land is expensive and a previous career helps provide the funds to set up in wine. Another French connection is Bernard Lacroute who grew up on the edge of the Burgundy region but made his fortune in Silicon Valley. After checking out vineyard sites in New Zealand, France and California, he decided on a spectacular hillside site in Yamhill and now makes a range of wines, from Pinot Gris through to Gamay. Of the range, his Willakenzie Pinot Noir shines out with raspberry-edged fruit and balancing acidity. Yorkshire Food and Fine Wine, in Sheffield, has a selection of his wines. None are cheap, but they demonstrate elegance and finesse in spades. Try Willakenzie Pierre Léon 2010 (£49.95) for firm, well-defined fruit or step up to Emery 2011 (£69.95) for delicately balanced red fruits with a hint of forest undergrowth adding complexity and style.