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Elizabeth Chambers Winemaker's Cuvee Pinot Noir 2011
Critical AcclaimAll Vintages
In 2005, the Chambers family acquired Panther Creek Cellars in McMinnville, the heart of the northern Willamette Valley, and Liz started to forge a relationship with winemaker Michael Stevenson to develop exceptional Pinot Noir. In 2013 the Chambers family sold the Panther Creek brand. Liz Chambers retained ownership of the former winery and tasting room in the town’s old power station, paving the way for the first releases from Elizabeth Chambers Cellar. The blue butterfly on every label is a tribute to her mother, who collected them, and who inspired Liz’s deep ties to Oregon wine country.
Michael Stevenson, the winemaker for Elizabeth Chambers Cellar, has worked with the top growers in the Willamette Valley for over 20 years. Widely recognized as one of America’s foremost regions, the Willamette climate is ideal for a Pinot Noir specialist like Elizabeth Chambers. Set in a corridor between the Cascade Mountains and the coast, warm days encourage extended ripening and flavor while cool nights retain acidity and balance. The balance is what Michael and Liz strive for with their Pinot Noir, an approach that favors a more delicate style over big oak and alcohol. And to find what they need they rely on close relationships with growers, people they count on as friends who grow Pinot Noir to exacting standards and deliver quality grapes even when Oregon’s temperamental climate takes hold.
Elizabeth Chambers Cellar produces 3,500 cases of wine, primarily focused on top quality Pinot Noir. Like the Burgundy micro-négociant model, the winery continually evaluates and sources grapes from the leading Willamette growers such as Freedom Hill, Shea Vineyard, Falcon Glen Vineyard, Lazy River Vineyard and Temperance Hill. Building on relationships throughout the Willamette Valley, Michael also mentors emerging growers and evaluates new sites for the winery’s signature blend and single vineyard program on an ongoing basis.
Michael and Liz believe in working with what nature gives them. The best Willamette vineyards are planted on sloping hillsides above the valley floor where Oregon’s famed volcanic soils with depths of minerality are protected from frost and vigorous growth. This is cool-climate winemaking, which supports an elegant style of Pinot Noir. And while he trusts the expertise of his growers, Michael makes the final decision as to how much to crop back every year and when to harvest, keys to getting the ripeness and balance required for world-class Pinot Noir.
Michael believes that “90% of what is in the bottle is determined by what we pick in the vineyard.” Elizabeth Chambers Cellar strives for a natural integration of flavors, derived through restraint in winemaking that respects the distinct character of each vintage without excessive manipulation. The goal is not to add flavors beyond what comes from the vineyard. As such, the use of new wood is strictly limited, and Michael favors some whole cluster fermentation to yield wines that are ultimately more subtle, revealing layers that deepen in complexity with age but are soft and balanced upon release. It’s a style which he characterizes as “feminine,” true to the legacy Liz Chambers inherited from her mother.
One of Pinot Noir’s most successful New World outposts, the Willamette Valley is the largest and most important AVA in Oregon. With a Mediterranean climate moderated by a Pacific Ocean influence, it is perfect for cool-climate viticulture—warm and dry summers allow for steady, even ripening, and frost is rarely a risk during spring and winter.
Mountain ranges bordering three sides of the valley, particularly the Chehalem Mountains, provide the option for higher-elevation, cooler vineyard sites. The three prominent soil types here create significant differences in wine styles between vineyards and sub-AVAs. The iron-rich, basalt-based Jory volcanic soils found commonly in the Dundee Hills are rich in clay and hold water well; the chalky, sedimentary soils of Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton and McMinnville encourage complex root systems as vines struggle to search for water and minerals. Silty, loess soils are found in the Chehalem Mountains.
One of the most finicky yet rewarding grapes to grow, Pinot Noir is a labor of love for many. However, the greatest red wines of Burgundy prove that it is unquestionably worth the effort. In fact, it is the only red variety permitted in Burgundy. Highly reflective of its terroir, Pinot Noir prefers calcareous soils and a cool climate, requires low yields to achieve high quality and demands a lot of attention in the vineyard and winery. It retains even more glory as an important component of Champagne as well as on its own in France’s Loire Valley and Alsace regions. This sensational grape enjoys immense international success, most notably growing in Oregon, California and New Zealand with smaller amounts in Chile, Germany (as Spätburgunder) and Italy (as Pinot Nero).
In the Glass
Pinot Noir is all about red fruit—strawberry, raspberry and cherry with some heftier styles delving into the red or purple plum and in the other direction, red or orange citrus. It is relatively pale in color with soft tannins and a lively acidity. With age (of which the best examples can handle an astounding amount) it can develop hauntingly alluring characteristics of fresh earth, savory spice, dried fruit and truffles.
Pinot’s healthy acidity cuts through the oiliness of pink-fleshed fish like salmon and tuna but its mild mannered tannins give it enough structure to pair with all sorts of poultry: chicken, quail and especially duck. As the namesake wine of Boeuf Bourguignon, Pinot noir has proven it isn’t afraid of beef. California examples work splendidly well with barbecue and Pinot Noir is also vegetarian-friendly—most notably with any dish that features mushrooms.
For administrative purposes, the region of Beaujolais is often included in Burgundy. But it is extremely different in terms of topography, soil and climate, and the important red grape here is ultimately Gamay. Truth be told, there is a tiny amount of Gamay sprinkled around the outlying parts of Burgundy (mainly in Maconnais) but it isn’t allowed with any great significance and certainly not in any Villages or Cru level wines.