What is Portland, Ore.? (Part II)

Pinot Noir grapes on the vine at Ayres winery.

What is Portland?

One of the finest wine regions around…

If you love Pinot Noir, especially ones with an earthy roundness in the style of Burgundy, you will go crazy for these made in the Willamette Valley.

I know I have. And it’s a love affair that’s lasted many, many years already.

Thanks to Travel Oregon, a group of food bloggers, including yours truly, recently was invited as guests to explore Portland’s famous wine region, which is considered the birthplace of New World Pinot Noir.

It was my first time to the glorious Willamette Valley, which sports 20,000 acres of vineyards, most of it Pinot Noir and almost all of it grown on  hillsides to avoid frost.

With 425 wineries, the Willamette Valley is as verdant and picturesque as the Napa Valley, but with a less touristy and corporate vibe. It’s still affordable, too, relatively speaking. While you practically have to be a neurosurgeon or Google employee #5 to afford to start a new winery in Napa, in the Willamette Valley, that dream is still accessible for regular, working-class folks with a bit of bank.

Indeed, most of the winemakers are small producers, many of whom make 5,000 cases or less annually.

Three-fourths of the varietals grown in the Willamette Valley are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both grapes that like the cool climate here, according to Harry Peterson-Nedry of the venerable Chehalem winery.

Nearly 30 percent of the vineyards are certified sustainable, organic and biodynamic.

And while federal laws require that a wine be made up of 75 percent of the varietal that is named on the label, Oregon is even stricter. Its self-imposed regulations require 90 percent.

A most memoral rose wine packaged in a clay bottle sealed with pink wax.

On a warm summer afternoon, we had a chance to do a spectacular tasting at Sokol Blosser winery that also included wines from the long-regarded Bethel Heights, Eyrie Vineyards and Ponzi Vineyards.

A tasting of fine wines from first-generation Willamette Valley winemakers.

A vineyard at Sokol Blosser.

Among the highlights was a 1989 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris Estate. If you’re like me and usually find Pinot Gris pretty lackluster, you will be amazed at the complexity and lushness it can take on when it’s one fine enough to age this long.

Another unforgettable sip was the 2008 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris Vines Rosé, which was bottled in clay with a candy-pink wax seal. A delicate peach-salmon hue, it was crisp and acidic, with the flavor of apricots.

Winemakers from Chehalem, Antica Terra, Ayres, and Matello.

Next, it was on to visit the next generation of Willamette winemakers at Ayres Vineyards, where Pinot Noir grapes are dry-farmed on 40 acres. We also had a chance to taste Pinots from Antica Terra and Matello side-by-side. It was eye-opening to experience all the many facets Pinot can express.

Finishing touches added to a dish at the Thistle Cafe.

The cafe's charming, vintage-inspired decor.

After all that wine, we stopped for sustenance at the adorable, 26-seat Thistle Cafe in McMinnville that has a kitchen no bigger than a walk-in closet. The food it turns out is remarkable.

Its menu of small plates highlights ingredients sourced from 15 local farms.  This year, the cafe was named “Restaurant of the Year” by the Oregonian, too — the first time the newspaper has chosen a place outside of Portland for the honor.

Duck wings confit with chimichurri.

Grits (from corn ground in-house) with local mushrooms and a sunny-side-up egg.

Dinner that night was pretty extraordinary, too — hosted by the valley’s first woman winemaker, Lynn Penner-Ash of  Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in the Willamette Valley.  The five-course feast was prepared by one of Portland’s most renowned chefs, Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place.

The view from the terrace of Penner-Ash winery.

Dinner included a woodsy rabbit ravioli with bacon and chanterelle mushrooms, a beef rib eye roll with braised oxtail-stuffed peppers, a cheese course that showed off some of Oregon’s best artisan and farmstead ones, and a donut-like brioche Savarin with wild plum confiture and mascarpone mousse.

Rabbit ravioli with liver, bacon and mushrooms.

Rib eye roll with shell bean piperade.

A sampler of Oregon's artisan cheeses.

A donut-like Brioche Savarin with wild plum confiture.

There was plenty of wonderful Oregon wines to go with it all, too.

But, of course.

Part I: Portland’s Incredible Food Scene

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Date: Friday, 30. September 2011 5:26
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Restaurants, Travel Adventures, Wine

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  1. 1

    I wish we could find wine from Oregon here in Switzerland (we only get Californian wines – Napa & Sonoma). That meal looks divine.



  2. 2

    I’ve been to Portland twice and loved it! Thankfully it didn’t rain either of the times we were there. I remember the free public transportation and tax-free shopping!

  3. 3

    I really didn’t know that Portland is such a good wine region, and I love a good pinot noir especially with chinese style roast duck!

  4. 4

    Time to visit a second time! I did not visit any winery in my first trip.

  5. 5

    I’ve been curious about the Willamette Valley for a long time. Time to visit!

  6. 6

    So jealous! I love Portland and I love Oregan Pinot Noir! Sounds like an amazing trip.

  7. 7

    […] II Tomorrow: Portland’s Wine Country Share and […]

  8. 8

    I’ve heard seriously amazing things about portland’s food scene but not as much about the wine! Sounds like an awesome experience!

  9. 9

    also added to the list. If there’s a wine country to check out, I am there.

  10. 10

    I didn’t know that Portland was such a good wine region either! We lived in California for a few years and went to Napa and Sonoma quite often. This was a really fun post to read. Looks like you had so much fun and the food looks amazing!!

  11. 11

    These shots are spectacular, I’ve never been to Portland, but all over the US but I’m shy a few states, and I’d love to visit Portland. AH, red wine, truly one of my favorite times is to enjoy a glass (or two) of red wine at dinner, I do try and keep it to a min weekly.

  12. 12

    What a wonderful looking trip and full of good food and wine! :D Of course that brioche is just looking so good to me! :P

  13. 13

    I love pinot noir and I know I will definitely go crazy with these wines. Your last two posts have definitely opened up my mind about the food and wine culture in this beautiful region of the US.

    Incidentally, I made a French inspired entree with pinot noir for the 30-day competition that I find myself in at the moment. It has been a busy few days and certainly very invigorating!

  14. 14

    My fav wines these days are from the Oregon area: Owen Roe, Erath, etc. So many great places to visit.

  15. 15

    A couple of my good friends were on this trip and it looked and sounded absolutely perfect! I wish someone would put my name on whatever list you guys were on. The food, the wine, Portland and the surrounding countryside are stunning! I would love to visit the area!

  16. 16

    YUM, rabbit ravioli! I haven’t tried Pinot noir, but the way you describe it makes it seem really appealing.

  17. 17

    I love pinot gris from Oregon! Lucky you to get to spend some time in their version of wine country.

  18. 18

    If you weren’t blown away by Oregon Chardonnay’s, you need to take another look. The complexity and minerality in wines from Argyle, Bergstrom, Evening Land, Soter Vineyards, is truly amazing.

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