Wine enthusiasts and producers have waged numerous arguments over which state — Oregon or California — produces the best pinot noir. It is a war not likely to be resolved here or anywhere.

We have visited both wine regions several times and have spent the recent weeks tasting pinot noirs from both states. Each produce some great wines, thanks to improved site selection, lower yields and better viticultural management. One distinct difference is the level of alcohol.

Many of the most heralded California pinot noirs — Kosta Browne, Loring and Sine Qua Non, for instance — are sporting alcohol levels of 15 to 16 percent after years of producing consistent levels of 13 to 14 percent. Their critics derisively call these high alcohol wines “fruit bombs” that more resemble an Australian shiraz than a French burgundy. In spite of the criticism, they sell well and score high by well-known critics.

Oregon struggles with alcohol levels, too, and some producers even add water to reduce alcohol levels.

But the wines can be more balanced and often more burgundian in style — a tribute to Domaine Drouhin, the French producer who established Oregon pinot noirs when he launched his winery in the region in 1988. Drouhin recognized that the Willamette Valley has the same latitude as Burgundy.

California is more established as a wine growing region and it wasn’t until recently that Oregon narrowed its ideal grape varieties to pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. Although David Lett was first to grow the grape for Eyrie Vineyards in 1965, it wasn’t until the 1980s before other winemakers followed him.

Unlike California, Oregon’s best regions for pinot noir are smaller and more defined.

We loved these wines and, although pricey, they have earned a corner in our wine cellars.

Domaine Drouhin Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2007 ($45). The Drouhins of Burgundy fame launched their Oregon enterprise in 1988 and have been making great pinot noir ever since. Not surprisingly, these pinot noirs take on the elegant style that represents good burgundy. It has generous cherry flavors with a hint of cedar and spice. An outstanding wine.

Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee 2007 ($45). Now in their 20th year, Domaine Serene has evolved into one of the most consistent, top producers in the Willamette Valley. Tom visited its wine operation several years and tasted through several wines . This cuvee has good acidity and concentration with cherry, cranberry and cinnamon notes.

Domaine Serene Evenstad Pinot Noir 2006 ($60). The Evenstad, named after owners Ken and Grace Evenstad, remains the flagship pinot noir. This reserve has a floral, spicy nose and flavors of cassis, cherry and cloves. It’s a wine that will evolve gracefully for years to come.

Domaine Serene Winery Hill Pinot Noir 2006 ($75). Using Dijon clones planted in 2000, Domaine Serene has created a rich, mouthfilling pinot noir with blueberry and cherry flavors. It is probably the most hedonistic single-vineyard pinot noir in this fabulous portfolio.

Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2007 ($36). Nice chocolate and black cherry flavors with an elegant and forest floor flavor to give it a burgundy style. Soft mouthfeel.

Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir 2007 ($30). Raspberry and chocolate aromas, breezy style and copious cherry and raspberry flavors with a dash of vanilla. Very nice.

Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2007 ($60). Candied cherry flavors with a touch of pepper; raspberry and cherry aromas with a hint of chocolate. Very dense yet elegant.

 

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have visited vineyards all over the world and have been writing a newspaper wine column for more than 20 years. Contact them at: [email protected]

– Relishmag.com