Oregon's Route 99W may not be as famous to wine lovers as Napa Valley's Silverado Trail, but it deserves to be.
Flanked on the west by rolling vineyards and dominated to the east by Mount Hood, this meandering byway passes by some of the best vineyards this country has to offer. The demeanor of Oregon's wine country is more relaxed, less corporate, and keenly focused on being considered the premier source for America's finest Pinot Noir.
The Willamette Valley's best producers certainly feel a tremendous sense of competition with each other, but also share a unified spirit of taking the message of Oregon wine to the rest of the country. Overall, Oregon production is a drop in the bucket compared to California, and I think this is probably a good thing. But the quality of wine is generally good to outstanding, and more consumers are coming to understand just how well suited Willamette's climate is to grape-growing.
It is one of the most tired clichés in the wine business to attribute the explosive popularity of Pinot Noir to the movie Sideways. It may have sparked the curiosity of wine-loving indie film buffs, but the flick was hardly a national blockbuster. Rather, that spark simply ignited an already smoldering desire in the market for red wines that were less heavy, less monolithic, and more versatile than what had been so popular—monster Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, often slicked up with expensive oak. Even relatively dark and inky Oregon Pinot Noir is a delightfully useful wine for good eating.
I found this to be the case in a bottle of Lange Estate Pinot Noir "Three Hills Cuvee" 2005 ($50, Chesapeake Beverage Group). This bottling is a blend of juice from the family's own estate vineyard, the Freedom Hill vineyard, and the Yamhill vineyard. It is impressive for its heady aromas of blackberry, espresso, plum, and spice. Lush and thickly textured, this wine continued to evolve and open over the course of the four hours it took me to work through it . . . all the way to the bottom. And I don't regret it.
A Pinot Noir of a different sort is the Adelsheim Pinot Noir Deglacé 2005 (Bacchus Importers, Ltd., $24 for 375 milliliter bottle). This dessert wine is made in a faux ice wine style (real ice wine grapes freeze on the vine; these grapes get chilly in Michael Adelsheim's freezer). It displays red wine notes like lingonberry and red currant jelly, but also white wine notes like orange peel and lemony honey. This makes the wine quite versatile, at home with clafoutis or chocolate mousse, as well as rich cheese courses.
Adelsheim also makes a Pinot of the Gris variety, the Adelsheim Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2006 (Bacchus Importers, Ltd., $13). Pinot Gris has a bit of a split personality, responsible for racy, austere Pinot Grigio and also gigantic sugar bombs like Alsatian Pinot Gris Vendange Tardives. Adelsheim's bottling retains the great acidity and refreshment of the former, dials in a little extra body and roundness from the latter, and marries them in a wine that makes for a great wintertime white. It boasts pear, Golden Delicious apple (but sliced and sprinkled with lemon to keep it from browning), and a faint spice character. Consider buying two bottles – it'll save you a trip back to your wine shop after you and your mates find yourselves unexpectedly at the end of the first one.