The Oregon Trail: Caravan to your local liquor shop for a pinot noir from Oregon — covered wagon not required

CoveredWagonThe first flowers sprout from the ground, and our thoughts turn to lighter fare and wine.  Pinot noir, with bright cherry fruit flavors, light body and purity, creates perfect synergy with everything spring. One failing of pinot noir, however, lies in the value the grape offers. Thin skins, small berries and tight bunches mean tiny yields and susceptibility to disease. While examples of $15 or less cabernet sauvignon and other grapes that show typicity and are delicious abound, the same cannot be said for pinot noir. Value pinot noirs usually are boring and insipid, funky and rustic in a not good way, or beefed up with syrah so the resulting wine no longer resembles pinot noir.

No other variety expresses the place it is grown quite like pinot noir. No other grape rewards a deft hand in the winery so well or punishes mistakes so severely. The grape has called Burgundy its home for 2,000 years, but if pinot noir has a second home, it is Oregon. The first vine was planted there fewer than 60 years ago, and the first bottling of Oregon Pinot Noir didn’t exist until 1967 (and Willamette Valley’s first bottle would be another three years away). Yet today, profound examples of the grape exist from dozens of producers. Oregon winemakers, often working together and sharing openly, have come to understand the soils and climates, and have learned which clones grow best where — and they did it at breakneck speed. Stunning single vineyard bottlings abound, with prices that match fine burgundies. But there is much more to find than these wonderful, but expensive, versions. 

In local wine shops, Oregon, where over the last decade climate change has resulted in riper, friendlier vintages, is the best place to look for pinot noir under $30. Producers of the entry-level pinot noirs from Oregon usually blend from a number of sites across the valley. While you lose the site-specific characteristics of a single vineyard bottling, you gain a wonderful example of both the producers’ style and the vintage, all wrapped in Oregon’s embrace. These elements result in an impressive number of delicious pinot noirs from Oregon in the $20 – $30 price range. It is the only region, and the only price point when it comes to pinot noir, that you can be pretty sure of success when randomly picking a bottle. You want to be more than pretty sure, though, so here are some of the best bottlings available in Rhode Island, all under $30:

Belle Pente: From pinot gris to chardonnay and beyond, all of the wines from Belle Pente are wonderful and worth hunting down. Their pinot noir offers a balanced and transparent expression of the vintage.

Kelley Fox: Look for the Ahurani Pinot Noir. Kelley Fox kneads the essence of the earth along with the grapes. If you are a fan of minerally wines (along with ethereal, exotic and haunting feelings), then you will be drinking a lot of her remarkable wines. 

Patricia Green Cellars: This mid-sized winery focuses on single vineyard wines, even bottling separate blocks and clones within vineyards. They make more than two dozen pinot noirs each year from some of the great Oregon vineyards. The Reserve is their blend, with dark red fruit and a hint of the savory qualities that many pinot philes go nuts over. It manages to be effortlessly delightful and slightly serious at the same time.    

Vincent Wine Company: Vincent Fritzsche is a one-man operation. His wines are incredibly pure, very classic and eminently drinkable. He also makes a gamay to die for, and I could devote a whole article to it.

Other safe bets: Natural Bent: Swick; Larger Wineries: Adelsheim, Foris, Willamette Valley Vineyards; Shouldn’t Forget: Patton, Holloran

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