I recently tried a new Oregon pinot noir from Nicholas Jay, a new Oregon wine concern from California with some high-end backing, made by a moonlighting winemaker from Burgundy. The wine cost $65, and I didn't really dig it.
"This wine won't change your life," I told my editors.
This led us down the garden path: Are there wines that cost $65 or less that you can buy in Portland that will verifiably change your life—or at least what you think about wine?
Happily the answer is a resounding "yes." All of these 10 bottles are available in retail wine shops across the city, and all of them are not just delicious, but delicious in a way that will make you think differently about wine in general. Either they show new possibilities for grapes whose potential you thought was exhausted, like Oregon's ubiquitous pinot noir, or may even introduce you to flavors and varietals of wine you never knew existed.
Wine doesn't have to be expensive, but if you're spending more than $30, you better be damn sure the bottle doesn't suck. These very much don't.
COS Pithos Bianco, Sicily
$33 at Liner & Elsen, 2222 NW Quimby St., 503-241-9463, linerandelsen.com.
Sicily is a hotbed of natural winemaking, working with indigenous wine varietals and old-school winemaking techniques. Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Pinuccia Strano make wine together as COS, and their orange wine, Pithos Bianco, is a total mind-blower for first-time drinkers of orange wine—wines fermented in contact with the grape skin—and experienced winos alike. This wine is made from the obscure grecanico grape, vinified in clay amphora buried in the ground. The result is a wine with the weight of a red, but made from white grapes, with a color and flavor spectrum totally out of the ordinary.
Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz, Calif.
$50 at Liner & Elsen.
California wine is boring and expensive, cabernet sauvignon is lame, and drinking anything with oak on it is a waste of time. And yet, one of the original Cult Cab winemakers from California, Ridge, makes an outstanding and accessible take on varietal cabernet from its estate vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where it's been operating since 1962. Wine practices here are sneakily natural: Ridge uses only native yeasts, and minimal amounts of sulfur dioxide (those sulfites you keep hearing about). Sometimes you just want a big fucking bottle of red wine to pair with red meat, dammit. This is that but so much more—a living expression of hallowed terroir, a benchmark for American craft winemaking, an inspiration for today's generation of hip, young winemakers—and a wonderful baseline to set against the other, weirder wines on this list.
Teutonic Alsea Pinot Noir, Alsea, Ore.
$50 at Division Wines, 3564 SE Division St., 503-234-7281, divisionwines.com.
Some of the most singular wine in the state of Oregon gets made at Barnaby and Olga Tuttle's Teutonic Wines, just off Southeast Powell Boulevard. They make a variety of affordable, accessible German-inspired whites, but this is the heavy hitter, taken from the tiny Alsea Vineyard in the Oregon Coast Range, just 22 miles from the ocean. The Tuttles planted this vineyard themselves in 2005, interspersed with wild plants and beehives. It is the antithesis to every boring-ass Oregon pinot you've tried in that it is lean, linear and not at all jammy or Syrah-like, which is the knock on a lot of what's made here. By looking to Alsace and Germany for inspiration instead of Burgundy and California, the Tuttles are making some of our state's most singular pinot from a wild coastal vineyard. Buy a bottle now and dive in, or if patience is your jam, set this somewhere cool for a decade and forget it—this wine is due to morph and mutate in weird, wonderful ways over the next 10 years.
2011 Cowhorn Syrah, Jacksonville, Ore.
$46 at Division Wines.
Wine from Southern Oregon is about to blow up, and Cowhorn Wines in the Applegate Valley is at the head of the pack. It uses the region's hot climate to good advantage, planting Rhône varietals that struggle further north, like roussane, marsanne, and some truly delicious syrah. This 2011 Biodynamic Estate Syrah is truly dope, coming on with big blackberry notes up front before smoothing out into something more elegant, reminiscent of the wines of Saint-Joseph in the northern Rhône. Drink this with barbecue—Rhônes and bones, brah.
Day Wines Running Bare, Dundee, Ore.
$33 at Mt. Tabor Fine Wines, 4316 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-235-4444, mttaborfinewines.com.
More dope Southern Oregon wine, this time from Applegate Valley shaman Herb Quady, who grows some of the state's tastiest cabernet franc at his vineyards down south. Brianne Day is quite simply one of Oregon's most exciting winemakers, and this wine—inspired by Basque wines from Southwest France—is evidence enough to back that claim. It's a blend of cab franc, tannat, and côt (called malbec in Argentina) that tastes like tobacco, olives and blood. You could blind-taste this with a thousand geeks and they'd never guess it was from Oregon. Or you can just drink it, like a normal person, and dig on all that texture and depth.
Paolo Bea San Valentino, Umbria, Italy
$40 at Pastaworks Wine at Providore Fine Foods, 2340 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-232-1010, providorefinefoods.com.
Pastaworks boasts some of Portland's best wine at its two retail location—in Providore on Sandy and City Market on Northwest 21st Avenue—especially for imports from Italy. Wines from the region of Umbria are often overlooked, but the Bea wines stand out. Brothers Giuseppe and Giampiero Bea make wine from a vineyard their family has owned since at least the 15th century, growing olives, grains and grapes across 15 hectares. This is some of the most beautiful, pure, utterly natural wine made anywhere in the world—San Valentino is their entry-level red, made primarily from sangiovese, and it tastes like flowers and black tea, Chinese five-spice and tar. This is a great place to start with Paolo Bea, but if you come across any of their orange wines, buy it up and save a bottle for me.
2013 Kelley Fox Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Ore.
$43 at E&R Wine Shop, 6141 SW Macadam Ave., 503-246-6101, erwineshop.com.
I would mention Kelley Fox in the same breath as Brianne Day as one of Oregon's most exciting winemakers, but their wines are utterly different. If Day Wines are a kaleidoscope of styles and experimentation, then Kelley Fox is mining more traditional territory, albeit with uncommon verve and touch. For my money, her pinots are perhaps Oregon's best, channeling Volnay Burgundy in their complex, feminine expression of the grape. Not much of this stuff gets made, and it is an antidote to every woody, pricey pinot you wasted cash on. Fox's Momtazi is a great place to start, from the biodynamic vineyards of the Momtazi family behind Maysara Wines.
Marie Courtin Champagne Resonance, Polisot, France
$57 at E&R Wine Shop.
Champagne is one of the wealthiest wine-growing regions in the world, second only to Bordeaux. For hundreds of years, the Champagne trade has been dominated by large blending houses—familiar names like Krug, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer. Some of these houses make delicious wine, but the grapes have to come from somewhere—and it turns out the humble farmers of the region make killer grapes on their own. Behind the big-money scenes in Champagne is a movement toward focusing on these farmer-winemaker bottlings, dubbed "grower Champagne," indicated by the bottling label term RM (récoltant-manipulant). A star of the grower Champagne movement, Dominique Moreau makes wine as Marie Courtin—her grandmother's name—in the southern Champagne village of Polisot. Most growers in Champagne sell their grapes to large blending houses; Moreau makes hers into utterly singular (and comparatively affordable) expressions of place. Resonance is made from 100 percent pinot noir, farmed biodynamically, vinified in stainless steel tanks, which means all that glorious yeasty pinot funk and fruit is preserved, resulting in a wine that smells as unique as it tastes. I don't care how much cash you have—$100 or $1,000 or whatever—this is some of the best Champagne money can buy, and serves as a wonderful place to start for exploring the glories of small-batch grower Champagne.
Christophe Mignon Champagne Rosé de Saignée, Épernay, France
$60 at E&R Wine Shop.
Our construct for this article—life-changing wine under $65—means we can sneak in another wonderful Champagne, this time from Christophe Mignon, a grower-winemaker near the village of Épernay. Mignon specializes in pinot meunier, the third grape in the Champagne trilogy (behind pinot noir and chardonnay), meaning this is a single-grape variety Champagne from the runty little brother of the region—resulting in a wine totally unique and different from commercial blended Champagne (yellow-label Veuve at Safeway, we're looking at you). Rosé de saignée is a formerly obscure (and now hotly en vogue) style of Champagne-making in which the skin contact from grapes imparts color and flavor on the wine; in Mignon's hands, using 100 percent pinot meunier, the results are about as unique and mind-blowing as Champagne gets. Think rose petals, oolong tea, Christmas spices, herbal liqueurs, sassafras, licorice, fruitcake—a children's treasury of tasting notes that keep giving and giving. If you splash out for one wine on this list, consider making it this one.
Ganevat Macvin du Jura, France
$39 at Vinopolis, 1610 NW Glisan St, 503-223-6002, vinopoliswineshop.com.
Dessert wine is not cool, but this is a truly cool fortified dessert-style wine that you can drink whenever. It hails from the Jura, a rural backwater in eastern Alpine France that is a darling destination of the natural-wine world, and Macvin is the buzz-inducing farmer tipple of the region. Start with base wine from late harvest, when sugar content is highest—Ganevat uses savagnin, an obscure Jura grape—then add a regional take on eau-de-vie called "Marc du Jura", combining at a ratio of two parts wine to one part booze. The result is something sweet, deeply complex, and boozy without overpowering you, almost in the same flavorscape as vermouth or chartreuse, though it's made completely differently. Jean-François Ganevat ("Fanfan" to his friends) is one of the Jura's buzziest producers, and his macvin is the truth. Dessert wine can be cool—there, I blew your mind.