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Oregon Pinot Noir

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It's been almost two years since the movie Sideways hit the screens, but Pinot Noir remains a hot ticket. And not just the California version. Try to find a bottle from Oregon and you'll discover the supply to be somewhat scarce, this despite the fact that Pinot Noir from that state can be fairly pricey. Entry-level offerings typically start around $20, but they are worth the tariff. Pinot is a very difficult grape to get right. It loves a cool climate but that requires a long growing season to ripen. Oregon's Willamette Valley is an ideal place to grow the grape, still, most years, they race to get the harvest in before the fall rains. Small crops (typically two tons to the acre or less) combined with intensive vineyard management drive up the price of Pinot. But that's what it takes to make the best, and Oregon is definitely making some great wines. Here are the panel's top three picks:

2003 Chehalem Pinot Noir, 3 Vineyard, $21.50

An unusually hot growing season resulted in very ripe fruit, but Chehalem was able to extend the harvest into October, with the extra hang time allowing the grapes to fully mature. The result is a nicely structured wine with just a touch of heat on the nose from the high alcohol (15.5 percent). The aromas are of bright cherry fruit with a bit of mushroom. The same cherry fruit dominates the palate with light, ripe tannins on the nicely persistent finish. An excellent value.

2004 Lachini Pinot Noir, Ana Vineyard, $39

A bit reserved at first, this wine opens up beautifully to reveal aromas of fresh wild strawberries with underlying notes of earth and spice. A delicious, fruit-driven wine with red berry flavors and a touch of mocha. Ripe smooth tannins come through on the long silky finish. It's only the fourth vintage for this winery, but with Isabelle Dutartre, a Burgundian winemaker with over 15 years of experience at both Maison and Domaine Drouhin, at the helm, it's one to watch.

2004 Phantom Hill Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $28.50

Opens with big, bold dark berry fruit aromas that give way to more subtle strawberry all backed by just a hint of mineral. An exceptionally well-integrated wine with mouth-filling cherry fruit laced with spice. Owner Anthony Maratea, who lives in Sun Valley, describes Phantom Hill as the winery without a winery. He and his good friend Gary Andrus of Oregon's Gypsy Dancer make the wine there. Look for his Idaho Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well, both are excellent wines.

This week's panel: Dave Faulk, Porterhouse Meats; David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Karen McMillin, Idaho Wine Merchant; Michael Molinengo, Idaho Wine Merchant; Kevin Settles, Bardenay.

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