Willamette Valley’s Vintage Tale: a Lesson about Wine Quality

willametteOne sign that a winery is dedicated to quality is their willingness to hold back the release of a vintage until it’s ready.

Last fall we visited the Willamette Valley for a week—our first visit to this increasingly important wine region noted for its Pinot Noir. As I reported in this blog post, we were disappointed in the wines. Many wineries were pouring their 2011 vintage of Pinot Noir—a notoriously cold and rainy year in which the grapes struggled to ripen. The wines, even from producers with established reputations, were generally thin and very tart, missing sufficient fruit to balance the acidity. Only occasionally were the mineral and herbal flavors prominent enough to make the wines interesting. We were told that despite the lack of fruit, these wines would age well but I was skeptical that there was enough extract in these wines to provide aging potential.

Of course, there is integrity in submitting to the vagaries of nature. In many wine regions, winemakers when faced with a bad vintage of Pinot Noir would simply import some Syrah to provide more body and flavor. But Oregon has strict labeling laws that require a wine labeled “Pinot Noir” must contain 90% Pinot Noir. Adding less than 10% Syrah won’t do much to improve thin and tart. Oregon winemakers have to grin and bear it when they have a bad vintage. They also have to put up with wine magazine vintage reviews that pan an entire vintage. Wine Spectator gave the 2011 vintage an 85!

But this story has a happy ending. When we returned to the Willamette Valley this summer for a five week visit, the 2011’s had undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. 9 more months in the bottle had transformed these austere wines into elegant, focused beauties full of complex earth and spice notes, still lean but now vigorously evolving through a series of sinuous textural contrasts and prominently displaying the satiny mouth feel pinot lovers love.

The moral of the story is that bottle age really matters in the development of a wine, and wineries that really want to show their wines in the best light should always be pouring some back vintages. As soon as the big, ripe, quick-selling 2012’s came out, many wineries pulled back their 2011 vintage to give it more time, and will be pouring them in their tasting rooms or doling them out to their wine clubs for many years.

In fact, one thing that makes the Willamette Valley unique as a wine region is that winery tasting flights routinely show multiple vintages. Too many wineries in other regions (yes, I’m looking at you California)  just pour their latest vintage and try to move as many bottles as possible. That’s good for the bottom line but not as effective at establishing a reputation for quality. The uncertainties of weather make each vintage an original expression. No two vintages are alike and each evolves in its own unique way. (This is especially true of Pinot Noir and in regions with weather that varies from year to year.) Of course, that means that wineries will have to hold onto a quantity of age-worthy wine in order to show it in the future. There are costs to that but costs that are well spent.

When I walk into a winery to taste the first thing I look at is whether they are showing back vintages. It is one sign that they are as serious about quality as they are about sales.

So who were the winners in the 2011 Pinot Noir sweepstakes? The following stood out (in no particular order), keeping in mind that many wineries were no longer pouring the 11”s.

Belle Vida by Jacques Tardy

Adelsheim Zenith Vineyards

Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills

Evening Land Seven Springs La Source

Cristom Sommers Reserve

Twelve, both their Estate and Reserve bottlings

Vista Hills, both their Treehouse and Piedmont cuvées

Beckham Estate

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