Let’s start with some simple facts and obvious truisms about red wine from Burgundy. The grape, with rare exception, is exclusively pinot noir. The climate is iffy, cool. Everything is variable: from vintage to vintage, village to village, producer to producer, plot to plot. One cannot ever expect consistency.

For historical, cultural, economic and geographic reasons, all the grape growing and most of the winemaking take place on a relatively small scale. The prices for the wines are usually indecent, now that a wine style once seen as weaker and less long-lived than Bordeaux has gained the upper hand in popular (i.e. international oligarch) imagination and interest.

It is the combination of all those factors save the last that makes Oregon North America’s closest approximation of Burgundy, though a version of it that we can far more easily approach. I would love to write a column about worthwhile wines from Burgundy, available to purchase for under $20, that are both true to the place and pleasant to drink, but that’s impossible. OK, there is Bourgogne rouge, the catchall term for a Burgundy made from fruit grown in less privileged, and less specified, sites, usually purchased by a dealer and combined at a distant winery. But only rarely do such wines hint at the real Burgundian poetry of pinot noir grown on limestone; more often, they are sour and disappointing.

And so, for those seeking even a hint of the mystique, some clue as to what Burgundy’s distinct juxtapositions of earth and fruit, purity and drive, simplicity and depth, are all about, there’s Oregon. We can talk all we want about that uniquely sinuous line in a Burgundy of iron, spice, acidity, haunting aromas and red fruits, but just about every time I open a moderately priced one with companions, alongside a well-made pinot noir from Oregon’s expansive Willamette Valley, most in the group prefer the latter.

A skeptic might roll his eyes at the facile side-by-side comparison. “Of course an Oregonian pinot noir beats a Bourgogne rouge,” he might say. “It has more ripeness, is ready to drink sooner, is softer, and generally has a more obvious flavor profile. Burgundy is intellectual wine, subtlest of the subtle, a lover not a fighter; it whispers. Oregon is louder, so it wins.” I, ahem, agree with the skeptic. But I also live in the real world, and I can’t afford to drink good Burgundy. So thank you, Oregon pinot, you obvious, adorable wine.

The story of wines from the Willamette Valley begins roughly 50 years ago, when David Lett started Eyrie Vineyards, a still exceptional winery whose bottles sadly are no longer available in Maine. The Oregon wine industry has gained worldwide acceptance and respect since the late 1960s, of course, but it is still dominated by relatively small producers, seemingly less ego-driven than comparably prominent vintners in California. Even the best known names in Oregon – Adelsheim, Erath, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser and others – have a distinct sense of humility and restraint. This despite the fact that such Burgundy powerhouses as Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot have purchased Willamette vineyards.

A necessary tangent: I meet more people who used to love drinking pinot noir from California than who currently do. There are extraordinary pinots from Oregon’s southern neighbor, of course. But so many of them, all along the price spectrum, fall prey to their winemakers’ seduction by ripeness – a trend that may recently be abating, but quite frustratingly gradually. Overheated, long-hung pinot noir is exhausted, and its wine is exhausting, as the initial thrill of sweet fruit unbalanced by sufficient acidity fails to offer adequate refreshment.

Most pinot lovers would argue that it is pinot’s birthright to be light, supple and suggestive, transparent, to show rather than tell. When pinot, thin-skinned and temperamental, is treated as if it’s a tougher, denser grape than it actually is, the double-punch of California’s hot sun and heavy-handed vinification render it almost unrecognizable. Those are the wines you graduate from. Oregon’s pinots, from a cooler climate and more respectful approach to winemaking, serve as the ideal next step.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that Oregon plots pinot noir’s middle path, between Burgundy’s academic delicacy and California’s outsized brashness. Like all clichés, it is perfectly fair to no one, yet also a helpful organizing principle. And I mention it in order to persuade a number of different wine-drinking populations to give Oregon a try: those who usually pass by domestic pinot noir because at prices under $20 the wines are too unsophisticated; those who lean European because they prefer lower alcohol levels and drier, more acid-driven red wines; those who have found that, beyond any specific flavor profile, what they prize most in any food or beverage is balance of various components; those who regularly drink California wines but are curious about what a more Europe-pedigreed wine can taste like when it doesn’t have a perceived off-putting European edge.

I look in Oregon pinots for spiciness and persistent acidity, a savory note to offset the sweet, a feel in my mouth that is supple but somehow also toothsome and satisfying. I like a suave wine, maybe a bit woodsy but not savage or rough. I want to be able to say, “Oh, isn’t that just so lovely?”

When I have the chance, I treasure the extraordinary wines from Cristom, Argyle, Adelsheim’s reserves, Domaine Drouhin; a current obsession is the young Aberrant Cellars. But my primary goal, elucidated below, is for the non-extraordinary, for wines that serve the function classic Bourgognes used to so ably serve: to be useful, pretty and unobtrusive at non-special-occasion meals.

The Montinore Willamette Pinot Noir 2013 ($17) is my recent go-to. It’s got a bright red character, classy, with constant zip on the tongue and a slight bitter finish that aligns it with varied meals. From grapes grown organically at the estate, this is a textbook wine that appeals to fruit-lovers and rock-heads alike. The vintage was rainy despite consistent heat, and not all wineries showed their best in 2013, but this came out just fine and continues to hold my interest.

The Anne Amie ‘Cuvée A’ Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2014 ($23), from a steadier, somewhat more intense-flavored vintage generally, is a true Burgundy disciple, by which I mean that it seems to effortlessly hold opposites. Light-bodied, pure and direct, it presents a mineral, spicy, green-forest character though wrapped in silky texture and baring subtle evidence of some new oak treatment in the cellar. It pushes past my everyday-wine price limit, but its fresh, eager character stands out and deserves praise.

The Windy Bay Pinot Noir 2012 ($16) uses fruit sourced from throughout the Willamette Valley, and offers a less distinctive character than the pricier options. But it punches well above its weight, as they say, perhaps because it is from a truly stand-out vintage: elegant, generous wine, beautifully integrated after an extra year or two in bottle. The fruit verges from red to black, and aspects of smoke, stone and damp earth are prominent. It’s a more compact, intense Oregon wine than the category usually expresses, but still guided by the pinot principles we ought to return to again and again.

Joe Appel is the Wine Buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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