Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why Cheap, Good Pinot Noir Doesn't Exist In Oregon... Or Anywhere For That Matter.

On my second visit to the Willamette Valley, located just outside of Portland Oregon, the beautiful, rolling countryside, made even more dramatic by threatening rain clouds battling against sun breaks, was quiet. Few of the tasting rooms we visited had anyone inside. Perhaps it was just a quiet Thursday in December, or perhaps wine lovers are staying at home due to the economy.

After all, Oregon's most famous grape is Pinot Noir, one of the most expensive wines on the market. It costs a lot to grow and a lot to produce. A 2005 study showed that only 7.65 tons of Pinot Noir grapes could be crushed per hectare (a hectare is around 107,639 square feet). Cabernet Sauvignon produces 12 tons, Merlot 18 tons, and Rubired 35 tons per hectare. The study concludes that "Pinot Noir’s low specific yield is second to none."

As I put my palate to the workout, I found some basic trends of Oregon's Pinots. First, the very good Pinot Noirs, such as those crafted at Chehalem Winery, Panther Creek Cellars, and Van Duzer Winery, were all medium bodied, and very dark and brooding. Achieving the rich characters of these wines takes time. Oregon winemakers use long fermentations at controlled temperatures and slow pressings to extract velvety "mouthfeel" and dark colors without bitter tannins. In the end, you get beautiful, plummy, earthy, complex wines.

The other trend I noticed, was that good Pinot Noirs could not be purchased for under $20. I know that some wine writers, such as Nancy Oakley, do not like any Pinot Noirs made in the States, but I think that's a little dramatic. The only one I tasted for under twenty bucks that was any good, was the Brandborg Umpqua Valley Bench Pinot Noir that I taste in the Barbur grocery store (the store is located a block from my girlfriend's mother's house, and has a tasting once a week that we try to get to when we're visiting. Just further proof that the good things in life can be had by everyone).

But I found that every other moderately priced Pinot that I tasted was a waste of money. The first one I tried was Ankeny Winery's 2006 Hershy's Red Pinot Noir, at $15.99. The wine was almost neon pink in color, produced a head when poured, and was so bright that I couldn't see for a while after the first sip. The wine was so bad that we returned it to Barbur Foods in exchange for Sass's 2007 Pinot Noir, which also cost $15.99. Unfortunately, the Sass was only a slight improvement, and by the time I was on my second glass I considered it the most expensive bottle of cranberry juice I'd ever purchased.

So what is the problem? Well, all the Sideways hype and marketing aside, nobody is going to give something away for less money than it cost to make, so cheap Pinot Noir necessitates cutting corners. Two of the most common ways to cut corners in wine making are over-extracting the grapes and padding crop yields, viz. allowing larger quantities of grapes to grow on the vines at the expense of their quality.

In the extracting process, winemakers develop a wine's tannins, color, glycerol, and flavor, such as the commonly experienced strawberry and cranberry. When winemakers over extract, these characteristics become messy, and cheap Pinot Noirs can often be distinguished by a very bright, sometimes neon coloring and a corresponding transparency. If your Pinot looks like an 80's windbreaker in the glass, you might want to return it immediately.

As for grapes that are not properly thinned, they do not receive the high amount of sunlight and nutrients required to make fine wines, but they do provide higher yields and therefore more wine. The grapes have thinner skins, again resulting in weakly pigmented wine, and are thin on flavor, making them incapable of creating complex wine and, ultimately, the perfect balance of plum, spice and earth that characterize great Pinots.

There are many other short cuts that ruin wine, such as harvesting over mature or young fruit in order to lengthen the harvesting season, quickly fermenting and pressing the grapes, or aging wine in the barrels for inadequate periods of time. Whatever the reason, the majority of the time it just isn't worth buying a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir for less than $20. You'll likely be stuck with a disturbing wine, as I learned the hard way.

To compare an inexpensive California Pinot Noir with those of Oregon, I tried the 2007 Mark West Sonoma County Pinot Noir, which costs a whopping $9.98. I preferred the Mark West quite a bit to the Sass and the Ankeny - it had more reserved fruit, a heavy dose of tannins and a fuller body - but ultimately it could not hold up. The Mark West quickly became a middle-of-the-road wine, with its main characteristics being tartness and again, cranberries.

If you know of a great Oregon Pinot Noir that I'm totally missing out on - please school me. Otherwise, leave the juice to the kids.

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