What To Drink Now: Erath Pinot Noir

Earlier this week winemaker Gary Horner of Erath Winery was in Dallas to lead an educational overview and tasting of some of his single vineyard, and single clone Pinot Noir selections from the latest 2009 release.  I was an invited guest of the tasting held at Oak.  I am a big fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and have always enjoyed a glass of Erath, best known for giving good value with their varietally correct Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc selections.  This was a wonderful opportunity to taste through some of the single vineyard wines from one of the oldest wineries established in Willamette Valley.

Like many stories I have heard from winemakers starting out in Napa, Sonoma, Walla Walla and Willamette Valley, Dick Erath had a deep love for wine, specifically Pinot Noir and wanted to find a place in the United States that could do it as well as the French do.  Like many of the other founders of Willamette Valley wine, i the late 1960’s he looked to Oregon and started planting, and made friends with his neighbors, like Ponzi, Adelsheim and David Lett at Eyrie, who were doing the same thing.  Though working individually in their vineyards, Willamette has always had a “if one succeeds we all succeed” motto and these early founders collaboratively began learning from their mistakes and sharing ideas with each other, to eventually make Willamette Valley what it is today, one of the best regions in the world for growing Pinot Noir….the best if you are speaking to an Oregonian.

Why is Oregon, and Willamette Valley in particular, so perfect for Pinot Noir?  As Gary noted, the soil, the sun, the climate and the land….essentially the terroir.  Though it seems every wine is touting their terroir, I do agree that there is something in the Willamette Valley soils, combined with their climate and sunlight that makes it so perfect for Pinot Noir.  Willamette Valley is made up of post ice-age, volcanic soils, the best being in the Dundee Hills (home of Erath as well as Domaine Serene, Domaine Drouhin, Eyrie, Lange, Stoller and Four Graces) with their red Jory soil, or basalt-based, volcanic soil filled with nutrients, minerals and the ability to hold water.  Add in a cool climate, with moderate sun exposure and adequate rainfall and you have prime Pinot Noir growing conditions.  Vintners have to be careful though as too much rain can cause the finicky Pinot Noir grape to develop mold, too much sun can cause the grapes to ripen unevenly.  In general though, Oregon is most similar to Burgundy to growing Pinot Noir in the United States.  Though slightly warmer than Burgundy, the grapes tend to have a similar flavor profile, with a touch more fruit coming out of Oregon than Burgundy, which actually matches well with American preferences.

Also, similar to Burgundy are the clones of Pinot Noir used throughout the region, with the Pommard clone being the Pinot grape used most in the region, often the backbone of Oregon Pinot Noir, with Dijon based clones like 114, 115 and 667 and 777, adding fruit, spice and elegance to the wine.  We had a chance to taste through three individually bottled clones from the same vineyard, same vintage of Erath.

The Erath 2009 Pommard Clone Prince Hill Vineyard offers the structure and balance to the final Prince Hill Vineyard blend, with bright strawberry, cranberry and boysenberry notes prevalent throughout the wine, followed by subtle notes of wild flowers and rich baking spice.  This is a wine with texture and firm tannins, the base of many Oregon Pinot Noir, with a long lasting finish.

Prince Hill Vineyard Clone 115 brings in spice and smoke to the wine with layers of root beer, cardamom, cinnamon and pine with toasted notes of cedar, opening up to a palate filled with berry and currant notes, followed by mocha and a touch of vanilla.

Prince Hill Clone 777 is one of the most widely used clones throughout California.  It’s characteristic bright cherry, orange zest, violets, and vanilla aromas dominate, opening to flavors of red plum and red cherry, cedar, cranberry and cola.  When tasting each clone individually you are able to identify and differentiate the flavors found in the finished Prince Hill Vineyard blend, and understand the time and experience needed to create the blend (or the assemblage) for each and every wine a wine maker makes.

Erath Winemaker Gary Horner explains his process for blending Pinot Noir.

For Gary, he finds stepping away from the winery and tasting and creating each wine in his home, after hours and on weekends, is his best way to blend each wine Erath will eventually bottle.

Gary started with Erath in 2003 when his long time friend, Dick Erath, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.  A former Seattle based clinical pharmacist he became interested in the science of making wine, eventually turning his garage into a home winery, using his pharmacist lab as his research center and taking weekend trips to UC Davis to attend wine making seminars.  In 1988 he quit his day job and moved to Willamette Valley, taking a $6.00 an hour job working the bottling line at Bethel Heights.  Over the next few years he would work from the ground up at Bethel Heights, learning everything he could about making wine, specifically Pinot varietals in Willamette Valley.  After Bethel Heights he worked with Benton Lane, eventually landing at Erath in 2003, after Dick had agreed to give Gary complete control of the wine making process.  In 2006 Dick sold the winery to Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates.  Initially there was some concern on Gary’s part, but he quickly came to understand the way St. Michelle works, which has proved prosperous for their other wineries like Spring Valley Vineyards, Northstar and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  They believe in a hands off approach, getting involved to help the winery run better and perform at their potential, while also providing resources and funds to help them succeed.  A true win-win for both parties, as Gary has come to learn since the winery was sold.

Tasting the final blend of the 2009 Prince Hill Pinot Noir, which includes the three clones noted above and is aged 15 months in partially new French oak is elegant and balanced, fulfilling Gary’s hope of making a wine that has a graceful start, building to elegant layers of red fruit, spice and earthiness, with soft tannins that lead to a long, lingering finish.  The goal is to make a wine that will taste as good young, just after bottling, as it will after a few years of aging.  Though the flavor profile will change with age, the goal is to still make it taste good whether it is young or old.

One of the most interesting wines we tasted came from Leland Hills, a vineyard outside of Dundee close to the Cascade Mountains, giving it less sunlight, more rain and significantly cooler temperatures.  It is the last vineyard harvested for Erath, the latest to ripen, but the grapes are delicious because of the vineyard owner’s meticulous work of pruning and training the vines and leaves of his four acre plot of land.  The resulting Pinot Noir is lush and powerful, filled with chocolate and spice notes, with touches of cherry, dried plum and caramel on the finish.

La Nuit Magique or “the magic night” is their special wine, only made in the best years, created as a celebration of the moment you fell in love with Pinot Noir.  If you are a lover of Pinot, you definitely have had this moment.  As this difficult and finicky grape evolves into one of the most desired wines produced, why so many vineyard owners and winemakers go to such lengths and so much trouble to produce it.  Only in the best years will this wine be produced, and often from single barrels from single lots of land, created in a whimsical yet specific manner using a touch of this, a bit of that, a little of this, to eventually create the ideal blend for that year.  We tasted the 2009, filled with sweet clove, nutmeg, mocha, tangerine, sandalwood and ripe red fruit.  Balanced with a silky texture and a velvety finish.