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Cristom's Lovely, Low-Key Oregon Pinot Noirs

Cristom's winemaker Steve Doerner makes elegant yet restrained pinot noirs in Oregon's Willamette Valley

One of the better-kept secrets of the wine world are the pinot noirs from Oregon. Well, they are not a total secret??ficionados have been discovering these gems for a couple of decades now, but compared with the celebrity status of the chardonnays and cabs from its larger and more glamorous neighbor to the south, California, they are still pretty much flying under the radar.

Partially this results from the extremely low level of production, which tend more to European levels than Californian. In fact, many vineyards don't even bother with traditional distribution channels and instead are content to sell their few thousand cases to their enthusiastic mailing list customers, and a handful of restaurants in Portland and Seattle.

Thankfully Cristom in the Willamette Valley functions on a somewhat larger scale. Its pinots are among the very best around, so it's good to be able to actually find them on wine shop shelves.

Many Oregon producers define themselves, accurately if somewhat defensively I feel, as the non-Californians, and Cristom's Steve Doerner epitomizes this attitude. He made wine in California for 14 years before moving to Oregon in 1992 as Cristom's first winemaker. He came in search of the opportunity to produce pinot noir in a cooler climate and on a smaller scale. He practices hands-off, old-world winemaking, employing limited use of new oak and, as he enthusiastically points out, whole cluster pressing, a practice that gives the wines structure and backbone; what he calls "nervocity."

This all results in wines that are more elegant and restrained, and which in style fall somewhere between California's blowsy opulence and Burgundy's intellectual, slow-maturing wines.

This is especially true of Cristom's entry level Mt. Jefferson Cuv??e 2006 ($30). A beautiful balance of fresh, lively fruit, bouncy tannins, and real minerality, all integrated into a fine classy wine for grown-up tastes.

It shows a remarkable complexity and great texture for a pinot at this price. As Doerner told me, it "has a more European kind of style to it. New World pinots are normally so fruit-driven, but in this one the fruit is restrained, and other things are coming through, the minerality and texture. You can taste the earth."

Yes indeed!

When to Drink: Now

Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour breathing helps.

Food Pairing: Pork, in its many guises, is wonderful with pinot.

Grapes: 100% pinot noir.

Appellation: Willamette Valley

Region: Oregon

Country: USA

Price: $30

Availability: Limited

Web Site:

See more wines at

Nick Passmore is an independent wine writer and consultant based in New York. For five years he contributed a widely read monthly wine column to, in addition to which his work has appeared in such publications as Forbes, Discover, Town Country, the Robb Report, the Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, Sky, and Golf Connoisseur. He is currently Artisanal Editor for Four Seasons magazine and contributes the Nick Passmore: Wine of the Week column to He is also a judge at the widely respected annual Critics' Challenge wine competition.

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