Recent vintages of Oregon pinot noir have been fascinating. But they may have also been confusing for consumers who would like a one-word association with the notion of Oregon pinot noir.
The 2008s were ripe and powerful. The ‘09s were lush and soft, while 2010 was fresh and high-toned. I loved the 2011 vintage. The growing season was long and cool, resulting in wines of great finesse and clarity that ought to age well. Many people have pronounced 2012 a landmark vintage. The wines were opulent and fleshy with plenty of soft, dark fruit.
Which brings us to 2013, a year that took a different turn. The vintage seemed set up to be good. Growers likened it to 2012, but instead of the dry, warm September and October that capped that year (and saved the year before), rains began in September and growers either had to pick the grapes early or risk rot and damage in the hopes of a dry spell. Either way, growers lost a good deal of their yield and the vintage was small.
A wine panel tasting of 2013 pinot noir affirmed the departure from previous vintages. In the context of Oregon, where more and more small producers have started making wine in the past decade, our choices were a good cross section and offered an accurate sense of the character of the vintage. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Juliette Pope, the wine director at Gramercy Tavern, and Christy Frank, who with her husband, Yanai Frank, has two retail shops, Frankly Wines in Tribeca and Copake Wine Works in Copake, New York.
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These sorts of vintage variations are both part of the pleasure of wine and a reminder of what makes it singular. No other beverage is so regularly dependent on forces out of its control.
The technology certainly exists to circumvent the forces of nature. Cool vintages can be concentrated to make them more robust and less dilute. Hot vintages can be tamed by having some alcohol removed. And wine from any vintage can be doctored with enzymes, tannins, acid and whatever other enhancements to create the flavor, texture and appearance a winemaker desires.
But all this technological bending and shaping produces not so much a wine as an alcoholic soft drink, as consistent and predictable as sodas on a supermarket shelf. These sorts of stabilized wines are what most people want. Indeed, much of the wine sold in the world, like much of the food, is meant to appeal to people who don’t want surprises.
Fortunately, the world is big enough to encompass not only those who prefer this level of certainty but also those who reject it. In its stylistic variability, good wine offers an opportunity to take risks, at least small ones. This is the joy of buying wine by producer, rather than fixating on vintage. Instead of zeroing in on a vintage that is supposed to be great, it’s far more interesting to identify producers with whom you are stylistically aligned and then to see how these producers respond to the challenges of each vintage, particularly when the years vary as wildly as they have in Oregon.
It was clear from our tasting that few producers resisted the vintage. Its character was stamped on the wines. Colors were all variations of ruby, rather than inky black. On the palate they tended toward lean rather than fleshy, with delicate fruit and angular, earthy flavors, often with notes of iron ore. Tannins showed their grip but not overpoweringly, and acidity was plentiful.
Florence wondered whether the delicacy and restraint of the wines were dictated by the vintage or whether they were a stylistic shift away from the sort of big, powerful pinot noirs that might have been more common in, say, 2008. It was a good question. My guess is, a little of both. More Oregon producers in the last few years have adopted a restrained style, but in 2013, even producers on the powerful end of the spectrum weren’t able to achieve extravagant fruitiness and opulence. None of the wines in the tasting hit 14 percent alcohol, and most were below 13.5.
Christy made the point that while the wines were both delicate and structured, they were not elegant as a group. Many seemed rustic and lacked precision, as if the acids and tannins had not yet been integrated into a seamless whole.
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Our favorite wines were fresh and energetic, like the No. 1 bottle, the Three Degrees from Maysara in McMinnville, with its taut, penetrating floral and mineral flavors. It was also our best value at $25. No. 2 was the vibrant, well-balanced Belle Pente, with persistent fruit and floral aromas and flavors, and that note of iron. The third wine in the top group was the Premier Cuvée from Archery Summit, with complex flavors of dark fruits, herbs, earth and, again, iron.
A large middle group included the tightly wound, energetic Trisaetum Willamette Valley; the gravelly, harmonious Le Combe Verte from Walter Scott; the crunchy, floral Purple Hands Freedom Hill Vineyard; the bright, delicate Raptor Ridge Shea Vineyard; and the savory Grand Assemblage from Dobbes Family Estate. Also worth noting were the robust Le Pré du Col Vineyard from Bergstrom and the taut, earthy estate pinot noir from the Eyrie Vineyards.
I was surprised that some of my favorite producers didn’t do better in the tasting. The Eyrie was No. 10 on our list, while wines from Big Table Farm and Penner-Ash did not make our cut. Frankly, I will always trust years of drinking pleasure over the results of a single blind tasting.
Other favorites were not in the group of 20 bottles. I highly recommend trying out wines from Soter Vineyards, J. Christopher, Brick House and Day Wines.
Meanwhile, the 2014 vintage was much bigger and warmer, and the 2015, I’m told, even bigger and warmer than 2014. They may not be my styles of wines, but I can’t wait to try them.
Top Oregon pinots from 2013; prices may vary
Best Value: ☆☆☆ Maysara McMinnville Pinot Noir Momtazi Vineyard Three Degrees 2013, $25 Fresh, taut and penetrating, with pretty aromas of flowers and red fruits, and tart, stony flavors.
☆☆☆ Archery Summit Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Premier Cuvée 2013, $50 Complex, intriguing flavors of flowers, earth, dark fruit, herbs and iron.
☆☆ 1/2 Trisaetum Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013, $29 Tightly wound and energetic, with aromas and flavors of red fruits and minerals.
☆☆ 1/2 Walter Scott Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Le Combe Verte 2013, $32 Balanced and harmonious, with gravelly red fruit flavors.
☆☆☆ Belle Pente Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013, $27 Lightly tannic, with aromas of flowers and red and black fruits, and fresh, persistent flavors of fruit and iron.
☆☆ 1/2 Purple Hands Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Freedom Hill Vineyard 2013, $35 Earthy, with floral aromas and flavors of crunchy red fruit.
☆☆ 1/2 Raptor Ridge Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard 2013, $59 Fresh and almost delicate, with aromas of flowers and bright flavors of red fruits.
☆☆ 1/2 Dobbes Family Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Grand Assemblage 2013, $27 Rustic but pleasing, with savory flavors of red fruit.
☆☆ Bergstrom Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir Le Pré du Col Vineyard 2013, $68 Robust, with earthy flavors of red and black fruits.
☆☆ The Eyrie Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Estate 2013, $39 Earthy and taut, with aromas and flavors of flowers and tart red fruit.