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 https://thistlemcminnville.com/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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