Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Oregon Pinot Noir - Some Thoughts on the 2004 Vintage

In 1993 the bartender at the now-defunct French restaurant where I waited table graduated from Reed College in Portland, and he knew about Oregon pinot. He convinced the owner to put Eyrie Willamette Valley Pinot Noir on the wine list, and this was my first experience with Oregon wine. It was very tasty wine, very low priced compared to Burgundy, and to a 21 year old who was just learning about wine, that Oregon label was a million times easier than dealing with the labels of Burgundy!

Fast forward about 10 years and most New York restaurants who take wine seriously include an Oregon pinot. Even modest wine stores carry the Eyrie or Rex Hill or Benton Lane, and better stores stock the real heavy hitters – Shea, Bergstrom, Penner Ash, Archery Summit and others. And if there is one wine region in which I have any kind of depth of knowledge it would be Oregon pinot noir.

One of the things I love about Oregon wine (now that I can afford to taste some of the better ones) is the individuality of style, not only the Willamette Valley as a whole, but within the producers within the Willamette Valley. While Josh Bergström of Bergström Winery makes heavily extracted, full bodied and rich pinots that might evoke comparisons to the California “fruit bomb” style of wine making, Mark Vlossak at St. Innocent crafts lighter wines of great elegance and complexity that can go toe to toe with the Cote de Nuits red of your choice. Chehalem, Brick House, Adelsheim, and Shea (to round out my personal favorites) wineries produce wonderful juice thwith their own recognizable “house” style.

2004 was a tough year to make wine in the Willamette Valley. Lots of rain damaged fruit and yields were uncommonly low. Many producers simply did not make their top single vineyard designate wines. 2002 was supposed to be the best vintage ever, and 2003 was so hot that the wines are often flabby and overly extracted and alcohol-laden. My favorite recent vintage is 2001. I harbor hopes that 2004 will be like 2001 – a solid vintage in which my favorite producers successfully crafted their “house” style of wine, without “vintage of the century” claims to attract excessive media and consumer attention.

I have tasted 4 wines from the 2004 vintage so far, and I have been disappointed by what I perceive as the uniformity of the wine, the absence of individhouse style. Is this specific to 2004? Were the rains just too heavy and the subsequent rot too destructive? Or, could Oregon pinot be drifting into that murky place where producers succumb to pressure to make wines that appeal to a “broader market” and sacrifice some individuality?

Too soon to tell, but I keep my hopes up until I taste more of the wines from 04. And even then, I’ve had too many good Oregon wines to give up without sampling the 05s (just starting to become available), and the 06s once they arrive. Here are a couple of tasting notes, and because they are not all that positive in general, I will also recommend a different and wonderful wine from the same producer. These wines might be hard to find in local stores. All can be ordered directly from the winery. The only way I know of to find the older wines is on an auction site like wine commune.

2004 Adelsheim Pinot Noir Goldschmidt Vineyard, $40.

The winery says this wine should be consumed within 5 years, but it was young and improved dramatically with decanting. Dark opaque purple. Smells of plums and some leather. Sweet dark fruits, and once the wine had a few hours open, spices and acidity balanced the wine - too much alcohol heat initially. Overall it is just good, and I will wait to open my other bottle for a few years. I tasted this alongside a 93 premier cru burgundy and a 2002 Moray St Denis. This wine didn't approach either Burgundy in finesse and elegance.

David and Ginny Adelsheim were among the first people to come to the Willamette valley to make pinot noir. They make red wines at 3 levels: a Yamhill Valley wine which is their “basic” wine, and for about $25 is usually a fantastic value. It’s readily available in wine stores too. Their Elizabeth’s reserve wines are made from some of the best grapes from their various vineyards. They are more profound, and easily worth the $15-20 difference in price. Adelsheim makes five single vineyard wines, and this is one of them. The 2001 Adelsheim Quarter Mile Lane Vineyard wine is probably the finest wine I have ever tasted from Oregon.

2004 Bergström Pinot Noir Cumberland Reserve, $34.

Very disappointing. Typical Bergström dark garnet. Dusty smell of earth and very faint dark fruit. Prominent alcohol, even on the nose. Nice smooth texture with pretty fine tannins, but not much varietal character. In a blind tasting, this could be mistaken for a blended wine. No red cherries, no spice, not much acidity. This wine developed a mushroomy taste on the 2nd day that was interesting, but it is not an elegant pinot. And as a big blockbuster it fails because it lacks richness or profundity.

Bergström makes many pinots each year, sourcing fruit from Shea, and other vineyards, and producing their top wine from their own fruit. Cumberland reserve is a blend of fruit and gives us the opportunity to sample Josh’s style at a reasonable price point. The 2003 Cumberland is a beautiful wine.

2004 Van Duzer Estate, $28.

Translucent ruby with scents of flowers and dark berries. Velvety smooth mouth feel. Dark fruits on the palate with some earthiness and a bit of red fruit too. A lovely wine, well balanced and somewhat austere in the Burgundian style. Not all that complex, but a good value.

Van Duzer does not yet have the name recognition or top flight status of some of the other wines I’ve mentioned, but they soon will. They make 3 reserve wines (under $40) from different plots of their own fruit, and they make an estate wine that is blended from all 3. This wine is my favorite of the 04s so far.

2004 Chehalem Pinot Noir Corral Creek, $39.

Pretty translucent light purple. Mushroomy earth and cherry liquor on the nose. Some flavors of plums and dark berries but the fruit is still tightly coiled. The wine is medium bodied and elegant in a way, but also dominated by the liquor in the nose and on the palate - the wine's mid palate and finish are too alcohol-laden. At almost 15%, I guess this is not surprising.

Chehalem makes a few different pinots each year, ranging from the “entry level” 3 Vineyard wine, to single vineyard wines and their top wine, simple called Reserve. I really like Chehalem wines, particularly the red fruit driven, lively and spicey Corral Creek pinot. Although not adored by the critics, the 2001 Corral Creek remains one of my favorite Oregon wines.

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