Oregon’s Willamette Valley is best known for producing the same wine variety for which France’s Burgundy appellation is revered: Pinot Noir.
But should you happen to run into a Willamette Valley vintner at his wine estate or a tasting event, it would be best not to try to compliment his or her wine by describing it as “Burgundian.”
Jason Lett’s father is responsible for introducing Pinot Noir to the Willamette Valley in 1965, and back then, such praise was accepted with open arms — if for no other reason than to help the valley garner some attention.
But wine is a product of its surroundings and the climate — what the French refer to as “terroir” — and the Willamette Valley’s terroir could not be more different than that of Burgundy.
“When I hear the comment, ‘Your wines are so Burgundian,’ I usually wave it off as gently as possible,” Lett said in this Forbes magazine article. “The reason we grow Pinot Noir is that it is a completely faithful translator of climate, site and soil. If my wine tastes like a Burgundy, that means I’m making wines that do not respect my site — which is actually a bit of an insult. However, I understand that the person making the remark is trying to be flattering, so I try to receive the remark in the spirit it was given. But it does sandpaper my soul a bit.”
What Lett and other Willamette Valley vintners wish for today is that their wines be embraced as outstanding examples of their site. After all, they are consistently enticing wines in terms of aroma, flavor, texture and finish, and deserve to have their own identity.
The Willamette Valley, located between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and Coast Range, generally is thought of simply as “south of Portland.” But it actually is more than 100 miles long and spans 60 miles at its widest point. It’s a 50-mile drive from McMinnville, a hub of Pinot Noir-making and home to numerous wine-focused restaurants, to the Pacific Ocean at Lincoln City.
At last count, there were 719 vineyards planted within the valley’s 3.4 million acres of land, along with 554 wineries — a vast majority of which craft Pinot Noir as their star variety.
Although every wine and every vintage is different, Oregon Pinot Noir is generally known for its low acidity (which contributes to its engaging “gulpability”), its lush texture, and its engaging fruit flavors.
Red Burgundy, on the other hand, can be higher in acid, tightly wound (requiring years of cellaring to open up), and in some cases a bit green.
There is a place and a palate for both styles, but the vintners of the Willamette Valley would prefer that you judge their wines on their own merits, and not “compliment” them by comparing them to Burgundy.