Seriously, it’s not always about size.

Last week, someone informed me that Oregon lacks Pinot Noirs “big enough” for California appetites, and that we should carry a particular Napa producer. I asked the person if they had tried an Oregon Pinot Noir made with Pommard or Wädenswil clones. The blank stare back told me they had not.

Let me first say that we welcome all inquiries; There’s no such thing as a “bad question”. One thing I’m adjusting to at Syndicate, however, is the manner in which some questions are asked. We’re also trying to break down cultural pretension that occurs in the wine-knowledge space, so we do our best to respond in an informative, honest manner, and without ego.

Learning and education play an incredibly important role in wine culture, and it’s a key aspect of our approach to experiential customer service. Speaking for myself, I want to know the background on what went into a wine, how it was made, and what I should look for to help me appreciate its unique qualities. I’m finding this is also true for most of our customers, and I’m more than happy to help.

So, to answer the question, Oregon is home to many wineries whose Pinots rival the heartiest of Napa Cabernets. No, these Pinots do not taste like a Cab. They do, however offer deep and rich flavors, structured tannins, and palate fullness that could see you substituting one in for of a Cab the next time you barbecue a steak.

There are many factors in play that directly influence Pinot Noir, and as a result, the wines produced from the grape. In this edition of Decanted, I’ll do my best to unravel the mysteries behind the grape, why two blocks of Pinot Noir grown next to each other can yield completely different wines, and how genetics, terroir, and winemaking methods play an equal role in determining a finished wine.

Mutants Among The Vines

Pinot Noir is an oddity in the grape world. It mutates at the genetic level more than other varieties. I used to joke that if you look at Pinot Noir the wrong way, it might change color. It’s really not a joke, if you consider Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are mutations from Pinot Noir in which the grape’s skin layers lost their coloration (anthocyanins). Why this happens is for people much smarter than me to answer.

Mutations like this can happen in the most random ways, as evidenced by a photograph taken by Diego Diaz, a Syndicate colleague during the 2018 Dundee Hills wine harvest. We were helping a winery sort grapes and documented the scene, when Diego spotted a cluster still on the vine that looked different. It appears to have mutated to Pinot Blanc, while the rest of the vine produced its expected Pinot Noir.

If you consider this one event, let me expand on it. The grape can mutate other qualities — such as thickness of its skin, the density or spacing of grapes in a cluster, how it responds to wind or sun, and how much acidity or sugar it may produce.

Over many hundreds of years, subtle genetic differences in Pinot Noir (and other varieties) have been cultivated into what are called “clones”. Clones are simply a specific genetic type of a grape that source back to a parent plant. Growers have identified more than 1,000 clones of Pinot Noir, though the majority of commercially produced Pinot Noir wine in the world comes from perhaps 50 to 60 clones in all.

In Oregon, the first Pinot Noir clones originated from several sources: Clippings trimmed off of vines in Burgundy, France, in the 1960’s and 1970’s that started the industry here, and in some cases, literally hauled back in suitcases; There are also clones that were sourced from heritage vineyards in California; And specialty clones that have been developed in the decades since, in cooperation with laboratories at UC Davis or Oregon State University. The reasons for all of these different forms of Pinot grown throughout Oregon and beyond, stems from the many varying environmental conditions found throughout the wine growing world. Certain clones grow better in certain conditions. That brings me to the topic of environmental factors.

Earth, Wind, and Water

More than any other varietal, Pinot Noir is a reflection of the environment in which it is grown. A more delicate and sensitive grape to climate, it has its moods and requires careful tending. In Oregon alone, there are many micro-climates: Mild and often rainy terrain in the Willamette Valley; Warm and drier conditions in the Rogue and Umpqua Valleys to the south; And Continental, hot, dry, wet, and snowy weather in the Columbia Valley (Columbia Gorge) and Walla Walla in the northeast.

In each of these regions, specific grape varieties are grown that flourish best. Pinot Noir is best suited to milder conditions, so in Oregon, the Willamette Valley is where most Pinot Noir is grown. Though not precisely the same latitude as the Burgundy appellation in France, there are similarities between the two regions that support why Pinot Noir is the flagship grape of the Oregon wine industry.

With a relatively warm (but not hot) growing season that is mostly dry, and with gently southwest-facing, sloped and fertile hillsides with elevations of 300-800 feet, the Willamette Valley’s perimeter is an ideal place for a grape that does its best with milder weather conditions.

In situations where a vineyard receives too much sunlight, the grapes can be damaged by solar radiation. If there is too much wind, the grapes may respond by thickening their skins, leading to higher tannin. If the weather brings too much rain, or it rains within two weeks of harvest, the result can be large, watery grapes containing too little acid. This can cause problems during production.

And then, there is the soil. Acidity, minerality, drainage, density, rock content… all of these factors, along with climate, flow into the terroir in which the grape is grown, and contribute to what the grape shows. The Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) has been subdivided into smaller, distinct geological regions that designate specific growing regions, based on the soil makeup.

Much of the Willamette Valley AVA is an ancient lake bed, with sedimentary soils and clays that create a gently fertile environment. One sub-AVA, the Dundee Hills, is actually an old volcanic outcropping, featuring iron-rich jory soil from volcanic basalt. Pinot Noir grown in this soil shows the volcanic minerality in the form of bright, higher acids, pronounced flavors, and tannins.

In contrast, to the north of the Dundee Hills, the Chehalem Mountains AVA has its own soil types, and yield Pinot Noir grapes whose wines are more earthy and mysterious, deep, and rich.

And, to the northwest, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA consists of well-draining, sedimentary marine soil. In ancient times, this was the original coastline, swampy and salty. Pinot Noir wines from this region are softer, more fruit forward, and dare I suggest, sweeter on the palate — though that’s a trait of the barreling process, which imparts subtle vanilla notes — but it’s what you’ll find in many wines made there.

Youngberg Hill's Estate

Youngberg Hill‘s estate consists of several soil types. Photo republished with permission from Youngberg Hill

One winery in particular highlights the impact of soil better than any I can think of. Situated in foothills of the Oregon Coast Range in the McMinnville AVA, to the southwest of the town of McMinnville, the soil of Youngberg Hill’s estate property is effectively split down the middle. To the South and West of the property (the Jordan Block) is predominantly volcanic jory soil (similar to Dundee Hills); To the North and East (the Natasha Block) is marine sediment (similar to Yamhill-Carlton). Both blocks were planted with 60% Pommard and 40% Wädenswil clones. So: Same grape clones; Same winemaker; Same climate; But different soil. The wines from each block are markedly different.

This brings me to the final aspect: Differences in winemaking.

A Winemaker’s Touch

I’m not going to delve much into this, beyond pointing out that grapes from the same vineyard may be used to produce wines by different winemakers. A favorite vineyard comes to mind — Bella Vida, located high up in the Dundee Hills — which offers wines from several local winemakers. One of the winemakers is many generations Burgundian, the others New World, and there it is: Wildly different wines, all down to the winemaker. I’ll probably blog about this in a separate post.

Pinot Noir ferment sample, pulled for analysis during the 2018 harvest

Pinot Noir ferment sample, pulled for analysis during the 2018 harvest

Winemakers may choose to harvest earlier or later; Select specific yeast strains, or rely on natural yeasts for the ferment; Use more or less new oak, compared to neutral oak; Age wines for longer or shorter periods in the barrels; Blend different amounts of clones together before bottling; And so on.

In cases where the environment hasn’t played nice and the grapes have diluted due to rain, additives may be called for. It’s not pretty, but at the end of the day, it might be necessary.

The winemaker plays just as important a role in determining how the final wine presents its qualities.

Back To The Grape At Hand

To bring everything back to the start of this post, Oregon has many Pinot Noirs that can satisfy a Napa appetite, whatever that means, but it misses the point of Pinot Noir. Want a giant red? Try a different varietal, like, well, Cabernet. It is not the intent of Pinot to masquerade around as a different grape.

Still, if you’re set on a full-bodied Pinot Noir, you’ll want to look for ones produced with the clones Pommard or Dijon 667, for example. Wines from these clones are bolder, darker, spicier, and richer, and that’s entirely due to the grapes themselves, and the ideal growing conditions in which they were cultivated.

In curating our wine wall, I’m dialing in our Pinot Noir selection to offer a fuller spread of the grape. I’m not in any rush to carry a Napa Pinot; That’s what Napa is for. Instead, I want to bring forward a range of local options, if for no reason than to prove the depth and variety of options here in Oregon.

A recent addition to our selection is Youngberg Hill’s 2016 Natasha Pinot Noir. Consisting of 60% Pommard and 40% Wädenswil, this wine features pronounced dark fruit, the right amount of rich baking spice, and deep, structured tannins. Unlike more delicate Pinot Noirs, it has lasting power against oxidation, meaning if the bottle goes unfinished overnight, it should be just fine the next day, and in fact benefits from an extended period of aerating.

I recognize this post is on the technical side. Few producers delve into this level of information on the wine label. If you ask, most tasting rooms can go into depth on the topic, but you have to want to know. It’s typically the kind of stuff reserved for spec sheets and trade materials, and available on the winery’s website.

This is something we aim to turn around at Syndicate. As noted earlier, we love learning, and sharing knowledge! If you’re unsure of something, just ask and we’ll be happy to do a little research for you. And, if you ever have questions about a specific wine, let me know. I love hunting down a good mystery, and learning something myself in the process.

Santé,

David Anderson