Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Belle Pente - Old World Pinot from Oregon

Pinot Noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley is, in my opinion, still trying to figure out what it wants to be. Is it a new world style wine, dense, concentrated, and fruit forward? Or is it in the style of Burgundy, with more of an emphasis on delicate aromatics, balancing acidity, and earth tones? From what I've experienced, the majority of Willamette Valley Pinot is made in the new world style, and that's fine. Most producers have no trouble selling out their stock.

I prefer the Burgundian style of Pinot. There are several Oregon producers that I know of making old world style Pinot - John Thomas at Thomas, Doug Tunnel at Brick House, Mark Vlossak at St Innocent (for some bottlings, anyway), to name a few. One of my favorites is Belle Pente.

Belle Pente is run by Brian and Jill O'Donnell, who are dedicated to making delicious and terroir expressive wines in an environmentally friendly way. The estate vineyard was converted to organic farming in 2000 and they began to use some of the principals of biodynamics in 2005. Yields are low and production is small - there are only 300 cases of the 2005 Estate Reserve, for example. Brian uses natural yeasts for fermentation unless mildew or rot forces him to use a baking soda spray, which kills some of the natural yeasts. He then inoculates with a Burgundian yeast that he says is neutral in terms of aroma.

The Pinot lineup includes Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton District wines, "entry level" wines made from grapes sourced from several vineyards. The Belle Pente Vineyard bottling is from the estate vineyard and it's a forward and youthful wine, although it can be quite complex. The Estate Reserve is a blend of the finest blocks in the estate vineyard, and although the vines are young, you'll be shocked at the complexity and character of this wine. The new vintage costs $45. I haven't yet tasted the 05, but the 04 was outstanding.

There is an older vine Pinot called Murto made from grapes from guessed it - Murto vineyard. Belle Pente's 6 acres of Murto are farmed using the same principles as their estate vineyard. Murto costs about $35, and in my opinion, is one of the top three values in all of Oregon Pinot Noir.

These wines are not so easy to find outside of Oregon (and I imagine are impossible to find outside the US). A couple of NYC stores carry them, but even then it's limited quantity. You could always order directly from the winery, if your state allows this kind of brazen treachery (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

I have a small stash of 2005 Murto, and I decided to open a bottle the other night just to see how things are going. Here are a few notes:
2005 Belle Pente Pinot Noir Murto Vineyard, $37. There is a mixture of soil and brett upon opening, and the topsoil notes remain on the nose throughout the first evening, but are joined by cherry and cool herbal aromas. A lovely and elegant nose. The palate is sweet and ripe but balanced with acidity, and there is great purity. Not revealing all that much yet on the palate other than the sweet fruit and cooling herbs, but there is clearly a lot going on under the surface. I re-corked the remaining half of the bottle and left it for the next evening.

On day 2 the aromas have integrated beautifully. There is a lovely pine/herbal character that cools the bright red cherry, and still some soil underneath. This is a complex old world nose. The palate shows great purity and focus, harmonious fruit and acids, all supported by firm tannins. This is well balanced (only 13% alcohol!) and just a pleasure to smell and drink, an outstanding Oregon Pinot in the old world style.


Sean said...

Hey BG,

Great call on the Murto vineyard. I had a six-pack of the 2002, a great vintage there in Oregon, & am sad to report that there's only one left in my cellar. I served the last one with a grilly mix of seasoned shrimp & sausage--impeccable pairing. What's the word on the '06 vintage? I've read that it's more fruit-driven, bordering on intensive, California-style extraction rather than that understated Burgundian style. I'd be interested to see what Belle Pente makes of it...Also, if you're a fan of that old-world style, be sure to check out Domaine Drouhin, Soter (Tony Soter, formerly of Etude), & for an unbelievable price/quality ratio, Elk Cove (great Oregon Pinot for $20!). All of these wines are unmistakably Oregon, but also unmistakably Pinot, if you know what I mean.

Brooklynguy said...

hey sean - i never tasted the 02 but i bet it's amazing. their website recommends holding that wine for further evolution. the only thing i heard about 06 is that yields are back to "normal," no late rains or other problems that reduced production. even if what you say is true, i imagine that belle pente and such others would not make jammy wine.

Sean said...

Goodness, I hope not. There's room in the world of Pinot for the full range of expression, don't you think? Even for those of us who like our Pinot to taste like, well, Pinot...Keep up the great work. Those of us in the 'hood (& those outside it, I'm sure) deeply appreciate it.

Brooklynguy said...

thanks pal!

Sean said...

Hey--I had a bottle of the Shea Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard 2006 last night...Quite the shocker! Clocking in at 14.25%, it reminded me of a thin, lean Zinfandel. Not precisely what one would expect from Willamette, huh? At $45, it's certainly not what I want from my Oregon Pinot. Stick with the cooler (or more typical) years, I say...

Brooklynguy said...

hard to tell based on that producer though, in my opinion. although the vineyard is grand cru for sure, the producer of the same name is making manipulated juice and i wouldn't judge the vintage based on that wine. they make exactly what you describe in every vintage now. remember the incredible scores the 04s generated?

let's taste an 06 belle pente or st innocent justice or something like that, and then we'll get a better idea.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. In my opinion the Belle Pente wines are always among the very finest wines in Oregon. They are distinct and loaded with real terroir character.

Brian is an extraordinary winegrower.