Affordable pinot noir from Oregon

When pinot lovers gather in McMinnville, Ore., starting Friday for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, they’ll be drinking some of the great wines of the world, from places as diverse as Burgundy, Michigan, California, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and, of course, the event’s home state, Oregon. I envy them: Many of the wines are outside the budgets of most of us, and events like IPNC afford you the opportunity to taste wines you could never buy.

With my more modest budget, I’m always looking for better values. California produces plenty of bargain pinot, but much of it isn’t terribly interesting. Fruit, yes. Complexity, rarely.

So I’ve been pleased to find a number of pinots recently from Oregon that offer good varietal character, nice freshness, some savory notes and, yes, fruit – all for less than $35 and, in some cases, less than $20. Some are labeled simply “Oregon,” but many are from Willamette Valley, prime pinot country.

How in the world do vintners do it? Vintage has helped. The past several have been warm. In an attempt to slow down ripening, vintners left a little more crop on the vines. (Bigger crops take longer to ripen; in a cool year, vintners will often have to drop some grapes so what’s left will ripen properly.) With a larger crop, “we can make wine for a lot less than we were making it before,” says Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder and winemaker at Chehalem in Newberg, Ore.

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Luisa Ponzi, winemaker at her family’s Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood, Ore., agrees that the warmer vintages have played a role. Ponzi’s affordable pinot is called Tavola, and the wine also relies on a certain type of site. “The Tavola can only happen from sites that can be pushed to three tons per acre and ripen consistently from vintage to vintage. That can happen with younger vines on lower-elevation sites, and so I am always on the lookout to keep those sites in my mix of vineyards,” Ponzi says.

Peterson-Nedry also notes that the Oregon wine industry has matured in recent years – and that includes its winemakers. “There are fewer mistakes made,” he says, adding that entry-level pinot blends are the wines where any problem wines would be included.

Ponzi says that pinot from southern Oregon – where the pinot is riper and less expensive – can also be used as a component, although she hasn’t used it at Ponzi. “Blended with some Northern Willamette Valley fruit, it can be a pretty compelling cuvee,” she says.

elk cove pinot

Elk Cove Vineyards, whose Willamette Valley pinot already is priced under $30, has introduced an even less expensive brand called Pike Road. “With Pike Road, we have certainly benefited from the high-quality warm vintages in recent years where we saw good yields that had no trouble getting ripe,” says Adam Campbell, owner/winemaker at Elk Cove in Gaston, Ore. “We barrel age the (Pike Road) pinot noirs but in 3- to 5-year-old French cooperage so we don’t have the added expense of new oak.” Pike Road is a blend of estate fruit and some grapes from longtime growers, while he plans to make Elk Cove 100 percent estate this year.

pike road

Here, then, are tasting notes for a few good Oregon pinot noirs costing less than $35.

$20 or less

2014 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir ($19), lively red cherry with a hint of rhubarb and a firm core of acidity.

2014 Broadley Pinot Noir ($20), structured and bright red raspberry with a slight leafy note.

2014 Montinore “Red Cap” Estate Pinot Noir ($20), lively red fruit, a peppery note and a touch of forest floor.

2014 Pike Road Pinot Noir ($19), structured, with bright raspberry and a slight leafy note. A sister brand to Elk Cove.

2014 Underwood Pinot Noir ($7/375ml can, sold in a four-pack), a lighter, fruity style, with pretty cherry and raspberry and a slightly drying finish.

More than $20

2014 Adelsheim Pinot Noir ($32), spicy, lively black raspberry with a sandalwood note.

2014 Anne Amie “Winemaker’s Selection” Pinot Noir ($25), plump cherry with some baking spice; bright and easy.

2014 Chehalem “Three Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($32), racy raspberry, a savory, leafy note and a slightly drying finish.

2013 Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir ($25), a little peppery, with red cherry and raspberry fruit, a hint of pencil shavings and a smooth finish.

2014 Elk Cove Pinot Noir ($29), bright, lively raspberry with a slight leafy note and firm tannins on the finish.

2014 Ponzi “Tavola” Pinot Noir ($27), very pure, with pretty cherry and raspberry and a racy core.

2014 R. Stuart “Love, Oregon” Pinot Noir ($28), quite floral, with bright raspberry, cherry, rose petals and a supple texture.

2014 Roco Gravel Road Pinot Noir ($30), lively and structured, with spicy raspberry and a leafy note.

2014 Stoller Pinot Noir ($30), lively red berry fruit with a forest floor note and supple texture.