Is Oregon Wine’s True Soulmate the Loire Valley?

Oregon's narrative has long been defined by comparisons to Burgundy—but what if its true soulmate is the Loire Valley? Jon Bonné on this alternate view of the state's wine identity and the producers who are shaping it.

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As elevator pitches go, Oregon wine’s might be the most perfectly focused. Folks show up in the 1960s. They plant pinot noir. It does well. More show up in the 1970s, and when the wines fare well next to the French originals, a lot more arrive—including the French. Other grapes make cameos: pinot gris, chardonnay, a bit of auxerrois. But ever since The Eyrie Vineyards’ David Lett planted Willamette Valley’s first commercial pinot vineyard in 1965, Oregon wine has really been about one thing: pinot noir. Today the state boasts more than 15,000 acres of it, nearly five times as much as any other grape.

But what if 50 years’ worth of perfect focus had slightly missed the mark?

I adore Oregon pinot noir, and have for a long time. Moreover, Lett’s work, along with that of Oregon’s other pioneers, is one of American wine’s best success stories—doubly so for avoiding commercial temptations promising California-sized dreams. But pinot came to Oregon for the reason pinot shows up most anywhere: Someone sees parallels to Burgundy—in Oregon’s case, a similarly temperate climate and rain during the growing season, which California lacked. Through the years, as California pinot became riper and more stylish, Oregon remained the loyal opposition, as you’d expect from a state whose motto is Alis Volat Propriis: “She flies with her own wings.”

The problem with such comparative theories, which you can find up and down the West Coast, is that they’re fuzzy at best—assuming, that is, they’re not flawed from the outset. There’s a tricky hubris in saying that place X should be able to approximate place Y. And there’s also, frankly, selection bias. Everyone likes to believe they’re poised to become the new Burgundy or Bordeaux. Show me the emerging region that dreams of being the next Loire or Savoie, or even Sicily.

In recent years, there’s been a growing sentiment that such comparisons, especially in California, were, if not wrong, just a bit hasty. So it’s possible that Oregon’s pioneers were looking a bit too far east in France for inspiration. Perhaps Oregon’s real soulmate is the Loire Valley.

This notion of “Loiregon” is hardly far-fetched—and I’m hardly the first one to suggest it.

At least three Portland-based wineries— Leah Jørgensen Cellars, Bow & Arrow and Division Winemaking Companyhave now been pursuing the Oregon-Loire confluence for half a decade. (The winemakers might shy away from calling it Loiregon, though. After Jorgensen filed for a trademark last year, lawyers for the French government promptly scuttled the application.)

They have uncovered, or planted, native Loire varieties across the Pacific Northwest, from Washington’s Yakima Valley to the Rogue Valley near the California border. That includes melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet’s grape), chenin blanc and, especially, cabernet franc, plus sauvignon blanc, malbec (known as côt in the Loire), gamay (which has a slightly different tale of its own) and, yes, pinot noir, which is planted throughout the Loire.

Their reasoning is simple: It’s a continuation of what Division’s Kate Norris calls “that Oregon adventure.”

The resulting wines proudly display their inspirations. Jorgensen’s Tour Rain, a mix of gamay and cabernet franc, is a tribute to one of Touraine’s most-loved properties, Clos Roche Blanche, which shuttered after the 2014 vintage. Cabernet franc, especially, is what truly excites Jorgensen, prompted by her love for the wines of the Anjou region. In fact, she has taken this Franc-ophilia a step beyond the Loire; in 2011 she began making Blanc de Cabernet Franc. It hints at the grape’s hallmark chili pepper quality, but in a white wine guise. It’s now her calling card.

While the wines do admirable jobs of approximating their Loire cousins, they represent something greater: a sea change in Oregon—one that stands to ultimately improve its wine industry, even if it means prying apart those Burgundian dreams.

Just like an earlier generation, the Loiregonians took direct inspiration from France. Division’s Norris and Tom Monroe learned winemaking in Beaujolais and the Auvergne, adjacent to the Loire, and Norris’s godfather owns vineyards in Touraine. Jorgensen fell for Loire wine while working for a wine distributor in her native Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s, selling the portfolio of Louis/Dressner Selections, which imports wines from many beloved Loire producers. Bow & Arrow’s Scott Frank, too, swooned at a Dressner tasting in Portland, where he worked as a retail wine buyer.

Frank also gravitated to the Loire for practical reasons—reasons that have to do with why Loiregon has uncovered a growing audience not just in Portland, but in New York and California, too. By the time he began buying wine, Burgundy was already on the verge of being unreasonably expensive. “For someone entering the wine industry when I did, in the early 2000s,” he tells me, “having a deep and meaningful relationship to Burgundy wasn’t possible. At least not for me. I mean, I worked in a grocery store.”

The narrative surrounding Loiregon is indicative of a countercultural knot in Oregon’s perfect elevator pitch. It presents an alternative view of what the state could be—one that stretches all the way to its earliest wine pioneers.

After Jorgensen moved in 2004 to her father’s home state of Oregon, she took a job with Dick Erath, who had begun planting pinot noir in 1969 and popularized Oregon pinot throughout the country. Erath had begun to consider what else might be appropriate for his home state. (The curiosity endures: Erath sold his Oregon vineyards in 2006 and moved to Arizona, where he grows everything from zinfandel to touriga nacional.) One day, Jorgensen recalls, he dropped a thick text on Italian grape varieties on her desk and quipped, “Some light reading for you.”

That’s why the Loire is just one lens through which modern Oregon can be viewed. There are Olga and Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wine Company, who view Oregon through a Germanic prism, making mostly aromatic whites; in southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, Earl and Hilda Jones founded their Abacela winery to pursue what they considered a corollary to Spain, aided by their son Gregory Jones, a prominent climate researcher; and in the Columbia River Gorge area east of Portland, wineries like Analemma and Memaloose have variously planted everything from dolcetto and trousseau to Galician varieties like mencia and godello. There are also post-modern experimentalists like Chad Stock of Minimus, with his curiosities like skin-fermented grüner veltliner.

But the most important counterpoint to pinot might be gamay, which plays a role both in the Loire and Loiregon, but is best known as Beaujolais’ grape. Gamay has been in Oregon for decades, originally grown by pinot die-hards. The love of the grape, if anything, keeps growing. When Evening Land Vineyards, owner of the famous Seven Springs vineyard, installed new plantings recently, it was gamay, not pinot.

In fact, the Willamette soils, diverse and thoughtfully plotted out as they are and with lots of volcanic influence, have little parallel to the Côte d’Or. But the granite found in the area—including at the Johan vineyard where Bow & Arrow gets its melon grapes—does bear a resemblance to French regions: Beaujolais, for one, but also the Nantais, where Muscadet is made. And while the Willamette doesn’t much resemble Burgundy, topologically, it does have at least a passing resemblance to parts of the Loire. (Although, scenery can be in the eye of the beholder: “I don’t know what anyone is talking about,” Norris says. “It looks like the Auvergne.”)

It’s the cultural resonance of Loiregon, though, that matters more than any specific comparison. This alternative view comes at a moment of reckoning for Oregon. For half a century, the state’s wine industry willed itself to stay small; with 25,000 acres of vineyard, it has one-tenth of California’s sprawl. But today it is attracting bigger doses of money and larger ambitions.

Impressive projects migrated there in the past, notably when the large Burgundy house Joseph Drouhin bought property in 1987. But in the past three years, the state has attracted investment from at least two large California firms, Kendall-Jackson (now with more than 1,300 acres, or five percent of the state’s vineyards) and Caymus (which launched its Elouan brand two years ago), as well as another major Burgundian player, Louis Jadot, alongside an influx of the deep-pocketed types who previously sought land in Napa. And with the style of Oregon pinot trending bigger, with more wines topping 14 percent alcohol, I’ve found them chasing what I’ll call a Russian River trajectory—an approach that first elevated, and then hobbled, California pinot noir.

As “Portlandia” should have demonstrated, it’s not in Oregon’s nature to chase the grandiose. In the Willamette Valley, less has typically been more; the few wineries that rejected the region’s low-key architecture for something more Baroque have often been viewed as pariahs. While the wines aren’t inexpensive, most have (until recently) escaped the California-style price inflation that came with pinot’s popularity.

And yet, in Portland, a very down-to-earth dining town, the average drinker is more likely to opt for an exceptional local beer than local pinot noir, which can easily push $100 in a restaurant. That’s created an opening for wines like Bow & Arrow’s Air Guitar, a Loire-ish mix of cabernets franc and sauvignon that’s as close as you’ll find to a wine tailored to Portland sensibilities.

“It’s not that people don’t like Oregon wine, but how many can they buy? If someone could deliver a good drinkable wine that would retail for under $20, people would gobble that shit up,” says Scott Frank. “Most great wine regions make a simple wine that people can drink locally. And I think Oregon, [and] the Willamette Valley particularly, failed in doing that—catastrophically.”

In other words, why not Loiregon? Everyday wine is what the Loire does exceptionally well, and has for a long time. It’s the very nature of the grapes found there. And that’s about as Oregon a quality as I can imagine. Which is why, without turning my back on pinot, the efforts at the fringe are what is thrilling about Oregon right now. It’s not that they’ll rewrite the trajectory of Oregon wine. It’s that they’ll help it to mature and grow beyond the dreams that began 50 years ago.

The Three Loiregon Producers to Know

Division Winemaking Company: Norris and Monroe’s efforts are split into two categories: more traditional pinot noir and similar wines, usually made with a vineyard designation, and a lower-priced Division-Villages line. Of the former, keep an eye out for their 2014 Savant Chenin Blanc ($25) from Willard Farms in Washington, with its fleshy aspect of raw pine nuts; it’s from the same spot as their juicy L’Isle Vert Chenin Blanc ($24), which is aged only in steel. Their defining red is the Division-Villages Béton ($26), a mix of cabernet franc, gamay noir, malbec and pinot noir from throughout the state that shows a spicy complexity (roasted chipotle, poppy seed) and irresistible juiciness.

Bow & Arrow: The Loiregonian red wines in Frank’s lineup are the duo of Air Guitar ($26), always fragrant and made from cabernets franc and sauvignon grown in the Willamette Valley, and the fruitier Rhinestones ($24), a combination of pinot noir and gamay. There’s also a slightly salty white Johan Vineyard Melon ($20), plus sauvignon blanc, a pure gamay and, yes, a pinot noir from the Hughes Hollow vineyard.

Leah Jørgensen Cellars: Southern Oregon is increasingly Jorgensen’s wheelhouse, and the curiosity that is her Blanc de Cabernet Franc ($26) from Mae’s Vineyard in Applegate Valley, is not to be missed. The 2014 shows less of the grape’s chili pepper bite and more generous flavors, including quince; it’s less gonzo but more refined than in earlier years. What had been called Loiregon is now her Southern Oregon Cabernet Franc ($25); it’s a surprisingly big, lush version of that grape, surpassing 14 percent alcohol, with more inkiness and smoked chili than the bright red fruit that would make a direct Loire comparison. The 2014 Tour Rain ($22) does add in a bit of bright fruit to match its darker flavors, and the rooty, earthy side of gamay is very much on display. These are proof that Loire inspiration doesn’t simply mean imitation.

In addition, Bow & Arrow and Division often make Nouveau versions of some wines, paying tribute not to the Loire (although that region makes harvest wines, too), but to Beaujolais.

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Daniel Parker Guidry

    This is great. I don’t mean to sound like I’m disagreeing because I don’t. I agree with the tone of this article and it continues to convince me of how ‘journalistic’ punch drinks is as a publishing body. BUT, my old bosses who operate McKinlay Vinyards produce a great, easy-drinking Pinot Noir, and they are some of the best people in the world. Their entry level is still under $20, and they know what Pinot, that you want to drink with food, should taste like. That being said, some of these new wineries you’ve listed are fantastic. Bow & Arrow maked some great wine. I can only hope that some of these wineries start pushing toward more high mineral styles like those you can find in the Loire. I know of a few Pinot making wineries that have coastal vineyards but unfortunately they’re Pinot. I can only hope they move more towards the grapes that flourish in these environments. The positive take away: Oregon is only going to get better.

  • John Skupny

    The 21st Century view of this might be not be the similarity to old world dirt and wine but to the zeitgeist of producing something different and good in the new world terrior & climate with our unleashed wine-making technique. I can tell you that if this new ‘leading’ thread of producers are hanging their financial hat on some universal American acceptance of the grapes from the Loire Valley that it is a long row to hoe!

  • Tom Elliot

    Nice to have this light shown on the new and deserving Loire-inspired Oregon wines popping up but people should know that the quantity being grown and made is minuscule. I distribute Leah Jorgensen in California. Allocations for the state range from 10 to 60 cases of each wine. That’s enough to keep around 25 accounts in the whole state going. It will take many years before plantings expand significantly. Most states will never see any of these producers wines sold near them.

    For many generations to come, the average wine consumer will continue to think of Oregon wine as Pinot Noir though Oregon has never been ALL about Pinot Noir. For as long as Pinot has been produced in the Willamette Valley there’s been excellent “alternative” southern Oregon wines. And Walla Walla Valley, half of which lies in northeastern Oregon, grows amazing Rhone and Bordeaux-inspired wines. As lovely as they are, the wines from producers in this article hardly represent “a sea change in Oregon” as stated. Rather, they add another riff to the “alternative” Oregon wine category and Francly, I’m glad they did.

  • Would love to see a story unveiling the wines of the Auvergne, as they not only represent terrific values, but most express that volcanic terroir with alacrity and generous comfort.