POWER WINE-TASTING isn’t a particularly pretty thing to watch, particularly when one person faces trying more than 650 wines over three weeks. When I arrive at the Brewery Blocks apartment of our wine columnist, Condé Cox, I find him pumping up for day eight of his marathon by slathering mustard on a slice of rye bread, wrapping it around a freshly microwaved organic hot dog, and inhaling it in four bites. “I’ll eat gruel,” he says, chewing the frank and swallowing his syllables, “and drink Château Lafite Rothschild.”

Cox’s task: to pick the top 50 current-release wines of the season—the 30 best at any price point, plus 20 that cost less than $20. Nominally fueled and ready, he pulls the evening’s first cork.

No effete affectations here—the nose swinging over the rim of the glass, the cocked eyebrow at the first sip, or the proverbial “hmmm” as the flavors rise. Cox’s movements are more characteristic of a swimmer than a sommelier.

Splash. Sniff. Slurp. Pause. Pitooouh.

But then, for my benefit, Cox turns up the volume on what is normally his internal, mouth-to-mind dialogue, a ratcheting, mind-boggling ticker tape measuring tannins, acidity, astringency, residual sugars, fruits, and other, more arcane oenophilic notes, such as the levels of leather and tar. Sniff. Slurp. Pitooouh. Cox scribbles the highs and lows into a brown leather-bound book, each entry punctuated by a final circled number—his rating.

“Most instructors only talk about aroma,” says Cox, who teaches a course called Wine Sensory Evaluation at Oregon State University’s extension campuses. “You need to use tactile taste.” And then he’s off. “How do you taste for alcohol? Heat. What’s that? It’s like the sense of touch in your fingertips, only you’re using the skin inside your mouth. How do you taste tannin? It’s astringency. Astringency is a dryness—the quality that sucks the saliva out of your mouth. Are you feeling the pang of pain on the roof of your mouth? That’s acid. Now, how do you distinguish that from warmth? Are you tasting the acid or the alcohol or the tannin? If you’re confusing them, you’ve missed the wine.”

Cox, 55, has been tasting wine for more than three decades, these days at a rate of about 12,000 bottles each year. He’s one of only four Oregonians ever to be accepted to study at the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine, a rigorous 56-year-old program. Should he become one of the few candidates who graduate each year, he’ll be in the elite company of only 275 fully accredited masters in the world. Sniff. Slurp. Pitooouh.

Cox’s rapid-fire monologues on winemaking history, gossip, and, ultimately, judgment stream by as an empty champagne bucket fills up with discarded mouthfuls of the noble rot. But as he describes the flavors—whether a particular fruitiness is closer to ripe pear or cucumber; whether the warmth of alcohol is well balanced by finely grained tannins—each of my taste buds stands up and bows.
As you try his selections, we hope yours will, too. Cheers!—Randy Gragg

Rating 95

 

No. 1

Archery Summit Winery
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Red Hills Estate’
Dundee Hills
$85, 9-10 years

Crafted by the talented 39-year-old winemaker Anna Matzinger (pictured below), this wine embodies the phrase “a steel fist in a velvet glove.” Remarkably balanced for a high-alcohol wine, it possesses tart cherry flavors, mouthwatering tannins, and a power restrained by elegance. Matzinger took big risks that paid off with a grip that is almost gritty with extra palate weight.

Founding owner Gary Andrus (who passed away early this year after a long illness) spared no expense on Archery Summit’s facilities, mixing new technologies with old-world values, from experimental fermentation vats to deeply excavated underground barrel caves. Matzinger, a Boise native and Evergreen College graduate who learned winemaking in New Zealand and Australia before starting at Archery Summit as an intern 10 years ago, has taken advantage of every opportunity she’s been given. To her, the most critical ingredients are hardly cutting-edge: the vineyard’s south-facing slope; the Willamette Valley’s volcanic soil, known as “Jory”; pruning the vines by as much as one-half to maximize the flavor in the remaining fruit; and using only the natural yeast that arrives on the grapes instead of commercially produced cultured yeasts. Of the five vineyards managed by Archery Summit, Matzinger says that Red Hills Estate “has always been my favorite—a little secret.”

Rating 93

 

No. 2

1789
2007 Pinot Noir
Chehalem Mountains
$48, 7–9 years

Supple textures, bright red-cherry scents, powerfully fruity yet restrained. Made by Isabelle Dutartre, perhaps Oregon’s least-known top-echelon winemaker. A French native (note the wine’s French Revolutionary name), Dutartre shuttles between the Willamette Valley and Burgundy, working for some of the best winemakers in each. This is her first wine under her own label, and it has a finesse to match her talent and experience.

Rating 92

 

No. 3

Hawks View Cellars
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Hawks View Vineyard’
Chehalem Mountains
$35, 6–8 years

With velvet textures, a floral nose, and delicate fresh-raspberry flavors, this wine offers a delightful blend of astringency and tartness.

 

No. 4

Ken Wright Cellars
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Abbott Claim Vineyard’
Yamhill-Carlton
$55, 5–7 years

Bursting with the flavor of black cherries and boysenberries, this rich but fruity wine reflects the high levels of marine sediment in Wright’s estate vineyard located on Savannah Ridge.

 

No. 5

Ken Wright Cellars
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Carter Vineyard’
Eola-Amity Hills
$55, 5–7 years

A nearly perfect balance of fruitiness, acidity, and oak-barrel flavors, with red-cherry and raspberry scents, reflective of the volcanic soils in the Carter Vineyard.

 

No. 6

Domaine Serene
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Grace Vineyard’
Dundee Hills
$125, 8+ years
Fine-grained textures and a lurking complexity that will show itself more fully in a few years’ time.

 

No. 7

Cristom Vineyards
2005 Pinot Noir
‘Signature Cuvée’
Willamette Valley
$100, 10+ years

Deeply structured and concentrated, this wine was built by winemaker Steve Doerner for maximum cellar-worthiness after having been bottle-aged at the winery for much longer than usual prior to release.

 

No. 8

Bergström
2007 Chardonnay
‘Sigrid’
Willamette Valley
$75, 3–6 years

2007 was a perfect vintage in the Willamette Valley for white wines; the cool weather in late summer and early fall allowed for white-wine grape varieties to be harvested just in time, before the autumn rains arrived. Many keen observers believe that 2007 will be regarded as the greatest year in history for Oregon white wines—they are restrained and ripe at the same time, creating the sensation of a perfect high-wire balancing act. This wine is an example: persistent on the palate long after being swallowed, a rich core of apple and pear flavors, and a supple yet powerful texture with just the right touch of oak.

Rating 92-

 

No. 9

Iota Cellars
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Pelos Sandberg Vineyard’
Eola-Amity Hills
$42, 5–7 years

Lots of toasty new oak barrels are used to make this mouth-filling wine, which exhibits plenty of delicate berry flavors.

Rating 91+

 

No. 10

Et Fille
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Kalita Vineyard’
Yamhill-Carlton
$38, 5–6 years

Scented of blackberries, with the delicacy of the 2007 vintage and the rich black fruits of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, this wine speaks particularly well of its time and place of origin.

Rating 91

 

No. 11

Et Fille
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Nicholas Vineyard’
Chehalem Mountains
$34, 3–4 years

Layers of complexity drape over the well-integrated scents of toasty oak. Great value.

 

No. 12

Brittan Vineyards
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Basalt Block’
McMinnville
$45, 8–9 years

Well-integrated, crisp acidity, with elegant oak-barrel scents. Rich red-cherry flavors that linger. Made by famous former Napa Valley winemaker Robert Brittan, who’s now growing cool-weather grapes in the Willamette Valley.

 

No. 13

Eminent Domaine
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Willakia Vineyard’
Eola-Amity Hills
$32, 8–9 years

Very cellar-worthy, this strawberry- and raspberry-scented wine is more intense but less complex than some of the other top wines available among current releases. Great value.

Rating 91-

 

No. 14

Domaine Serene
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Jerusalem Vineyard’
Eola-Amity Hills
$75, 5–7 years
Red-cherry flavors with well-integrated oak scents and soft, tactile textures.

Rating 90

 

No. 15

Archery Summit Winery
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Premier Cuvée’
Dundee Hills
$48, 6–8 years

A brooding wine that needs time to unwind and reveal its lingering depth and complexity.

 

No. 16

Chehalem
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Statement’
Willamette Valley
$99, 6–8 years

Intense black fruits, massive concentration, and plenty of alcohol.

 

No. 17

Domaine Drouhin Oregon
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Laurène’
Dundee Hills
$65, 6–8 years

Perennially one of Oregon’s best wines, the 2006 Laurène will be most enjoyable after a few more years in the bottle.

 

No. 18

Domaine Serene
2006 Chardonnay
‘Etoile’
Willamette Valley
$45, 4–6 years

Well balanced, with well-integrated oak flavors reminiscent of Chassagne-Montrachet.

 

No. 19

Hawks View Cellars
2008 Pinot Gris
Chehalem Mountains
$24, drink now

Long, with intense Granny Smith green-apple flavors. The best Oregon pinot gris I’ve ever tasted.

 

No. 20

Lemelson Vineyards
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Meyer Vineyard’
Willamette Valley
$48, 4–8 years

Clean, pure pinot noir plum and berry flavors, with more intensity than complexity.

 

No. 21

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Dussin Vineyard’
Willamette Valley
$60, 6–7 years

Typical varietal flavors and good length in this mouthwatering wine.

 

No. 22

Remy Wines
2006 Lagrein
Willamette Valley
$60, 5–8 years

A richly textured, rustic, highly tannic wine made from very low-yielding vines, with the scent of wild mulberries. This is a rare Italian grape variety, recently introduced to Oregon.

Rating 89+

 

No. 23

Bergstrom
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Bergstrom Vineyard’
Dundee Hills
$75, 4–6 years

Layers of complexity with supple textures and soft berry flavors.

Rating 89

 

No. 24

Dukes Family Vineyards
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Thomas’
Dundee Hills
$50, 6–9 years

Multiple concentrated layers of dark-cherry flavors.

 

No. 25

Francis Tannahill Wine Company
2006 Pinot Noir
‘The Hermit’
Willamette Valley
$48, 4–5 years

Concentrated and richly textured, with persistent dark-cherry flavors.

 

No. 26

Iota Cellars
2006 Pinot Noir
‘Pelos Sandberg Vineyard’
Eola-Amity Hills
$42, 5–6 years

Intensely concentrated, with plenty of the alcohol warmth typical of 2006 pinots.

 

No. 27

Brittan Vineyards
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Gestalt Block’
McMinnville
$45, 10 years

Mildly astringent and exhibiting dark-cherry flavors, this is an intense wine with lots of aging potential.

 

No. 28

Brick House
2007 Chardonnay
Ribbon Ridge
$29, 2–4 years

Quite complex, made with native yeasts and limited oak-barrel influence.

 

No. 29

De Ponte Cellars
2007 Pinot Noir
‘Reserve’
Dundee Hills
$55, 6–9 years

Rich and long, this interesting wine will develop nicely in the bottle.

 

No. 30

Vista Hills Vineyard
2007
‘Saga Hills Reserve’
Dundee Hills
$48, 6–8 years

With proceeds going to education programs, this non-profit label invites top winemakers to special bottlings. This one—made by Isabelle Dutartre (see No. 2)—is delicately textured, with dominant raspberry flavors.

Oregon’s Top Value Wines

Current releases under $20

Rating 90

 

No. 31

Hillcrest Vineyard (Heydon Road)
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
‘Cuvee Adam Doerner’
Umpqua Valley
$20, 2–5 years

Delicate floral scents but rich black-currant flavors, harvested from the oldest vineyard in Oregon (planted in 1961).

 

No. 32

Bergström
2007 Chardonnay
‘Old Stones’
Willamette Valley
$20, 2–4 years

One of the best chardonnays ever made in Oregon, this is truly a top value. Quite long, intense pear flavors, with a judicious use of oak barrels.

Rating 87

 

No. 33

Abacela
2008 Albariño
‘Estate Grown’
Umpqua Valley
$18, drink now

Crisp, dry, lingering mountain-stream and almond flavors distinguish this food-friendly wine.

 

No. 34

Brick House
Multivintage
Pinot Noir
“N.V.”
Ribbon Ridge
$20, 1–2 years

Typical pinot noir berry flavors; made from biodynamically grown grapes.

 

No. 35

Zerba
2006 Merlot Blend
‘Wild Z’
Walla Walla
$19, 2–4 years

Ripe and well balanced, this blend comes from one of the few wineries in Walla Walla to source mainly from the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

Rating 87-

 

No. 36

Stoller
2008 Pinot Noir Rosé
‘JV Estate’
Dundee Hills
$17, drink now

Refreshing, tart strawberry and light-raspberry flavors.

 

No. 37

Eyrie
2007 Pinot Blanc
Dundee Hills
$14, drink now

With the scent of lanolin and wax, this is a food wine, perfect when paired with potato-leek soup.

Rating 86+

 

No. 38

Laura Volkman Vineyards
2007 Oregon St. James Pinot Noir
Chehalem Mountains
$20, 2–3 years

Typical pinot noir scents and flavors with good intensity and length.

 

No. 39

ArborBrook
2008 Pinot Gris
‘Croft Vineyard’
Willamette Valley
$18, drink now

Quite long on the palate for the price, with plenty of old-vine richness tasted at the midpalate.

 

No. 40

Cooper Mountain
2007 Pinot Gris
‘20th Anniversary Reserve’
Washington County
$15, drink now

Rich apple flavors that linger on the palate.

Rating 86

 

No. 41

Chehalem
2008 Chardonnay
‘INOX’
Willamette Valley
$19, drink now

Firm green-apple acidity and not a whiff of oak. Virgin chardonnay.

Rating 85

 

No. 42

Montinore
2006
Gewürztraminer
Willamette Valley
$13, drink now

Scents of honeysuckle, clovelike spice, and flowers.

 

No. 43

Chehalem
2007 Riesling
‘Reserve’
Willamette Valley
$20, 1–2 years

Scent of pine resin, with some complexity and good length.

Rating 84+

 

No. 44

Twelve
2007 Pinot Blanc
Yamhill-Carlton
$15, drink now

Scent of almonds, with lingering layers of flavor.

Rating 84-

 

No. 45

Viento
2007 Pinot Gris/Sauvignon Blanc Blend
‘Allegre Vineyard’
Columbia Gorge
$14, drink now

Quite quaffable, with nice layers of apple and pear flavors.

 

No. 46

Raptor Ridge
2008 Pinot Gris
Willamette Valley
$18, drink now

Interesting, subtle pear flavors that linger.

Rating 83+

 

No. 47

Brandborg
2007 Riesling
Umpqua Valley
$16, 1–2 years

A fine balance of acidity and residual sugar, with green-apple notes.

 

No. 48

Cooper Mountain
2008 Tocai Friulano
Willamette Valley
$14, drink now

Peach and pear flavors in this light, fruity, food-friendly wine made from a grape historically grown almost exclusively in the Italian Alps.

Rating 83-

 

No. 49

Maysara
2008 Pinot Gris
McMinnville
$16, drink now

Concentrated, with green-apple and citrus flavors.

 

No. 50

McKinlay
2007 Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley
$15, 1–2 years

Tart but complex strawberry flavors.