Oregon Pinot and food
Every time I open another bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir - a wine-related activity that I don't always perform as often as I should - I whack myself on the forehead for not doing it more often.
Few wine enthusiasts would argue that Pinot Noir is one of the most "noble" grapes, with potential to make the world's greatest red wines, at its best showing a delicate, nuanced style that's distinctly different from such robust red grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
And most of those same enthusiasts would likely acknowledge that Burgundy is the place to beat for memorable Pinot. Burgundy boasts the heritage, the tradition, the grapes, the climate and the soil; they've been making great Pinot for centuries, and have had plenty of time to get it right.
But all the vine-growing world seeks to emulate this success, and especially in recent years, pockets of potential greatness have appeared in climes as varied as California (where Sonoma, Carneros and the Central Coast northward from Santa Barbara all stake credible claims) and New Zealand, particularly cooler-climate regions like Central Otago. And, getting to the point of today's sermon, Oregon, of course.
Oregon's Willamette ("Will-AM-it") Valley, an attractive agricultural region that spreads out within an easy drive to the south of Portland, has emerged in recent times as a wine-producing name to be reckoned with. I find a consistent earthy, herbaceous quality in many of its Pinots that reminds me of Burgundy, nicely balanced with a fresh, clean cherrylike fruit that speaks of the New World. While some of its more sought-after bottlings have been driven up to Burgundy-level prices, many quality Oregon Pinots remain affordable.
What's more, Oregon Pinot fully lives up to Pinot Noir's famous affinity with a range of foods. This makes it a particularly attractive choice in a restaurant situation, where it can be tough to come up with a single wine that will go will with both your steak and your partner's fish ... or whatever.
The Benton Lane 1999 Oregon Pinot Noir featured in today's tastings did a fine job with our dinner last night at Louisville's Napa River Grill, working well with three different dishes. With a fresh but rather strong-flavored salmon steak in a simple preparation, the wine's fruit stepped forward. With the creamy, tangy wild-mushroom preparation that filled an appetizer "egg roll," the wine's texture took the lead, emphasizing a velvety smoothness. Alongside a pork main dish with a tart dried-cherry stuffing and sweet Port wine reduction sauce, the wine's pleasant acidity made an appetizing palate cleanser between bites. Not many wines can show well in such varied settings.
The night before at home, I served another Oregon item, Sokol Blosser 1998 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, with a pan-roasted free-range chicken breast and a simple reduction of its own caramelized pan juices. This more earthy and herbal wine acted almost like another ingredient in the sauce, painting its flavors across the relatively plain canvas of the simple chicken dish without overpowering its delicate flavors.
Although you'll notice no red meat in these particular matches, make no mistake: Despite its delicacy, I would not turn down a good Pinot with beef or lamb.
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Sokol Blosser 1998 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($13)
Clear, dark ruby with reddish-orange glints. Red fruit aromas add marked but pleasant vegetal "tomato skin," a characteristic not uncommon in Oregon Pinot, with grace notes of fragrant pepper and brown spice. Juicy and fresh, tart cherry-cola flavors are consistent with the aroma; a good acidic backbone makes it a fine partner with food. (May 24, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: A simple pan-roasted free-range chicken breast makes a good neutral canvas on which the wine can paint its fruit flavors.
VALUE: Good value, quite a bit of complexity for Pinot Noir at this price.
WHEN TO DRINK: It is particularly difficult to predict ageworthiness for Pinot Noir, but this five-year-old is drinking very well now. (Note also that, although this vintage is still on the retail shelves, the 1999 and 2000 vintages are already available.)
WEB LINK: Sokol Blosser's Website, which offers online ordering where the law permits, is at
Benton Lane 1999 Oregon Pinot Noir ($36 restaurant price)
Benton Lane's familiar red postage-stamp label makes this one stand out on the shelf. Clear ruby in color, its delicate scents speak of red Pinot fruit, neither as herbaceous nor as earthy as some of its Oregon neighbors. Subtle, fresh flavors balance a pleasant red-cherry fruitiness with crisp but not overbearing acidity. It's a good, straightforward Pinot, an excellent food wine. (May 25, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Demonstrating Pinot's affinity for varied fare, it went well in a restaurant setting with a wild mushroom appetizer, a simple salmon main course, and pork tenderloin with a fruity dried-cherry stuffing and sweet Port reduction.
VALUE: This restaurant price was appropriate in its setting; should go for well under $20 at retail.
WHEN TO DRINK: Drinking well now, might develop more complexity in the cellar but only under ideal storage conditions.
WEB LINK: The winery Website is attractive but limited in its information, and does not offer online sales:
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Winemaker's Choice (May 23, 2003)
Value from Spain (May 21, 2003)
Post card from Bordeaux: A cellaring surprise (May 19, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Two French-inspired dinners (May 22, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, May 26, 2003