Californian Pinot Noir vs. Oregon and Washington Pinot Noir
A lot of winegrowers will tell you; Pinot Noir expresses the terroir (or distinct characteristics from the site it’s grown) more than most varieties. Because each region and area’s climate and soil infuse the wines with distinctive characteristics, it makes it easier to compare them. They’ll also tell you it’s a challenging variety to grow, hence its nickname of the ‘’heartbreak grape’’. Regardless, they’ll most likely admit that it’s a rewarding grape variety producing fantastic wines when cared for properly.
Light and elegant or rich and full-bodied, to help you make your decision next time you visit the shop or go to a restaurant, we’ve highlighted below some of the key elements to consider.
Oregon and Washington Pinot Noir
While the production might seem small compared to California’s, Oregon’s vineyards are highly focused on growing this incredible wine varietal. Indeed, over 60% of vines planted in Oregon are Pinot Noir. Focusing on nurturing and mastering Pinot Noir’s production has enabled the state to develop high standards and forge a world-class reputation in the space over the last few decades.
The Willamette Valley is the leading producer in Oregon and was awarded Wine Region of the Year in 2016 by the reputable Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Known for its elegant and sophisticated signature Pinot Noirs, many Willamette Valley Wines have earned prestigious international awards over the last few years. Indeed, six wines made it on the coveted 2018 Wine Spectator Top 100 list, including one in the top 10; Ken Wright’s 2016 Shea Vineyard cuvée was awarded the best Oregon Pinot Noir in 2019 for its incredible concentration and powerful ripe fruit flavors.
While Pinot Noir production in Washington is small, some high-quality Washington Pinot Noir wines are produced in the Columbia Gorge area. Indeed, a few local wineries deliver exceptional Pinot Noir year on year. It’s the case of Underwood Mountain Vineyards, located in the Columbia Gorge AVA, which received the Vineyards of the Year awards at the Annual Washington Wine Awards two years in a row in 2016 and 2017.
The Kerloo 2016 Underwood Mountain Pinot Noir Columbia Gorge was scored 91 points by the Wine Enthusiast Magazine, which praised this balanced wine for its fantastic fruit flavors exhibiting hints of cherry and a smoky finish.
These amazing achievements are a testament to the hard work of passionate wineries and demonstrate the superior quality this wine region is able to deliver to wine enthusiasts.
Wine Flavor Profile, Texture, and Structure
Often touted as producing wines comparable to the finest burgundy’s Pinot Noirs, Oregon’s cool climate is ideal for growing the noble wine varietal. Situated in the Pacific Northwest corner of the US West Coast, Oregon and Washington’s Pinot Noirs are light to medium-bodied wines and are usually high in acidity. While these Pinot Noirs are a little more acidic than their Californian counterparts, they’re generally less tannic and have lower alcohol content. They’re also more delicate and fragrant than the denser and riper rich Californian Pinot Noirs.
Pinot Noir is heavily influenced by its terroir, and therefore, soil and climatic variations are strongly reflected in the wines’ aromas and flavors. The states’ soils are made up of three major materials: volcanic, marine sedimentary, and loess, giving the wines a different taste. Pinot Noirs grown on volcanic soil have soft red fruit flavors, are higher in acidity, and softer in tannins while marine soils give Pinot Noir wines darker fruit aromas and higher tannin content. Wines grown on loess soils usually exhibit spicy and red fruit aromas. Note that Washington Pinot Noir vines mostly grow on loess soils.
Even though there is a wide range of intensity throughout these two world-class wine regions, Oregon and Washington Pinot Noirs are usually intense in fruity aromas and flavors. Typical aromas range from earthy notes such as mushroom and truffle to soft red fruit aromas such as currants, strawberry, pomegranate, and cranberry.
If you’re looking for quality wines, the Oregon and Washington regions won’t disappoint as the two regions make excellent Pinot Noirs. The Willamette Valley, particularly, produces sophisticated, subtle, balanced, aromatic, age-worthy wines that pair well with grilled fish or roast chicken.
Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are expensive wines, but their high quality makes them great value for money. The average price for a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir is $16.07, as opposed to $9.76 for Washington Pinot Noirs and $6.68 for those produced in California.
Bottles priced at around $20 usually offer the best value for money with high-quality, balanced, and sophisticated wines. Note that wines above $50 offer exceptional quality, and one of the most expensive Oregon Pinot Noirs is currently priced at $434 a bottle.
The Wine Sampler Rating
Based on awards, wine flavor profile, structure, texture, and price point, we attribute Oregon and Washington Pinot Noirs a score of 4.7 out of 5.
Californian Pinot Noir
California is the leading producing state when it comes to Pinot Noir, and Californian vineyards stretch from the North to the South of the state, covering thousands of acres. The major wine-growing regions include the cool-climate areas of Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, the well-known Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, and the reputable Santa Rita Hills.
The Anderson Valley and the Santa Rita Hills are known for producing the finest Pinot Noirs in the state, although it was Sonoma County that was named 2019 Wine Region of the Year by the prestigious Wine Enthusiast magazine. This recognition is a testament to the world-renowned wines the region produces. Indeed, Californian Pinot Noirs were featured on the prestigious Wine Spectator Top 100 wines list in 2015 and 2019.
Besides, in 2019, 12 Californian Pinot Noirs were scored over 90 points by the Wine Enthusiast, with three reaching the coveted 95+ scoring, including Williams Selyem 2017 Pinot Noir from Sonoma County (98) and Roar 2017 Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia Highlands(97).
Wine Flavor Profile, Texture, and Structure
Although the different microclimates found in California influence the flavor profile, texture, and structure of Californian Pinot Noirs, these aromatic wines usually exhibit spices or floral notes, strong earthy characteristics, a subdued minerality, and display a great freshness.
Besides, in the Golden State, blessed by long sunny days, ripe grapes allow for a powerful fruitiness in local Pinot Noirs and a riper and darker fruit flavors than in the Northern States of Oregon and Washington. As a result, Californian Pinot Noirs have plum, blackberry, or ripe cherry aromas.
They exhibit deep and bold dark red and purple colors as opposed to lighter translucent red colors found in Oregon and Washington Pinot Noirs.
These dense wines are also high in acidity but not as much as their Oregon or Washington counterparts. Note that Californian Pinot Noirs usually have a higher alcohol content than their Northern equivalent and are, therefore, full-bodied wines.
Although cheaper on average than their Oregon and Washington counterparts, high-quality Californian Pinot Noirs usually range from $30 to $70. Great wines from lesser-known regions such as Santa Rita Hills can be found between $30 and $50, offering the best value for money, while Sonoma producers can charge over $70 for a great bottle.
The Wine Sampler Rating
Based on awards, wine flavor profile, structure, texture, and price point, we attribute Californian Pinot Noirs a score of 4.4 out of 5.
Although California produces some world-class Pinot Noirs, we like the sophistication of Oregon and Washington wines and the lower entry point for high-quality bottles.
We hope this article helped you better understand the differences between Californian, Oregon, and Washington Pinot Noirs. Keep in mind that while we strived to provide some guidance on each area, the best way to know which region produces the best Pinot Noirs is still to taste them 😉 Picking a region over the other will strongly depend on food and wine pairing and your personal preferences when it comes to wine flavor profiles, structure, and texture.
If you’ve ever gone wine tasting and heard all these different wine terms, words and phrases, but had no idea what any of it meant, don’t worry about it,