Popularity threatens Pinot Noir’s image

Oregon must protect its reputation for high quality Pinot Noir as the variety’s growing international popularity leads to cheaper, higher yielding examples, a number of the state’s top producers have warned.

Willamette Valley, Oregon

“Part of me is worried about the future of Pinot Noir everywhere,” remarked Eyrie Vineyards owner Jason Lett, whose father David Lett was the first to plant the variety in the Willamette Valley back in 1966.

Highlighting a growing demand for Pinot Noir from consumers around the world, Lett warned: “There’s a danger that people are going to start making it cheaper and cheaper.”

To illustrate this shift within Oregon, Lett confirmed that Pinot Noir vineyards were beginning to appear on the fertile valley floor of the Willamette Valley, rather than being restricted to the hillsides. “The battles dad fought about planting grapes in the right place are still being fought today,” he commented.

Among the other producers voicing their opposition to this development is Harry Peterson-Nedry, owner of Chehalem. “Here in the Willamette Valley we don’t plant on the valley floor and we should not plant there,” he insisted. “The hillsides are where we protect ourselves from frost and disease.”

Similarly opposed is Adam Campbell, who took over the management of Elk Cove, the first winery in what was to become the Yamhill Carlton AVA, from his parents 15 years ago. “The flat ground here in Oregon is very fertile so it’s good for other types of farming,” he explained.

Warning that the soil on the valley floor is “way too heavy” for high quality grape growing, Campbell added that in a marginal climate for Pinot Noir such as the Willamette Valley, “our southern aspect and steeper slopes not only help us with drainage, but give us more sunlight.”

Nor did Lett restrict his concerns to developments in Oregon alone, pointing to larger scale developments in California with the potential for a more serious impact on Pinot Noir’s high quality image.

“California is grafting over Merlot and Petite Sirah with Pinot Noir, but it’s the wrong climate,” he argued, adding the qualification: “There are plenty of climates in California that are very good for Pinot Noir, but those sites are very select.”

By contrast, Lett maintained: “What’s nice about Willamette is the climate is by and large very suited to Pinot Noir, so there’s much more choice and people can focus on micro-climates.”

Despite his fears about the future of Pinot Noir, Lett highlighted a positive trend from the Willamette Valley’s emerging wave of young winemakers. “The new generation is using more natural practices in the winery and more endemic yeasts so there’s going to be more diversity of expression,” he predicted.

Emphasising the benefits of cultivating this originality, Lett concluded: “When we’re fighting the tide of US Pinot Noir, it’s going to be very important to differentiate what’s happening here from elsewhere and on our valley floor.”

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