Focus on Oregon Pinot Noir

It's a safe bet that if you're reading this article you know the story of 2008 and Willamette Valley pinot noir.  Universally acknowledged as one of best vintages since the industry began in the mid-1960s, 2008 yielded pinots that are deep, powerful and, most important, structured, with the potential to age gracefully in bottle into their second decade of life.  Especially serendipitous was the fact tha 2008 was a year in which quality was uniform up and down the valley.  In the view of just about every producer I've spoken to, if you didn't make at least very good wine in '08 it's time to find another line of work. 

The caveat (isn't there always one, especially with pinot?) with 2008 is that the wines are emphatically not for early drinking.  Jim Anderson, co-owner and co-winemaker of Patricia Green Cellars, describes 2008 as "in complete forget-it mode right now.  It's a unique year, he went on.  "There's incredible material in the wines but they aren't opulent.  At the same time the fruit is so deep that the wines don't come off  as tannic.  They're all about power but this isn't the time to drink them, and neither is the near future.  Anybody who opens them now, without some knowledge of the vintage, is making a mistake." 

My tastings this spring bore out Anderson's view--all the more so because almost all the '08s I tried in recent weeks were late releases that are the stars of the producers' stables, meaning that they are the most powerful and ageworthy examples of the vintage.  "It's a dark-fruit year and right now the wines are clenched and brooding," said Chehalem's Harry Peterson-Nedry.  "I hope that people don't get caught up in the frenzy and pull corks now because they'll only get a glimpse of the wines' potential.  Most people love pinot because it's sensual, which is exactly what the 2008s aren't right now."

Two thousand nine, by contrast, is all over the map, in terms of both style and quality.  It was a hot growing season but the incidence of sunburnt grapes wasn't a major issue (as it was in 2003).  This was probably the result of healthy canopies and the fact that the bad heat spikes occurred in July:  most of the affected grapes fell off on their own, months before the harvest.  According to Mark Vlossack of St. Innocent, "There was great weather during the bloom and we got a great fruit set, with lots of clusters which had lots of berries, which made those clusters tight."  He feared that because the clusters were so compact, excessive rainfall would result in moisture accumulating inside the clusters, which would bring on rot. 

Fortunately, the rain didn't materialize and the grapes stayed healthy, which meant that yields were, in most cases, huge.  Peterson-Nedry reported that his vineyards produced up to 50% more than normal, an observation echoed by Vlossack, who said that even with crop-thinning, "some vineyards gave twice their normal yield."
The most intriguing aspect of 2009, according to Vlossack, "was the fact that in the northern sector of the valley, in Dundee, Yamhill-Carlton and so on, the harvest was early, mostly in mid-September, and yet the best wines are rich, opulent and open, with slightly low acidity." Anderson added, "If you just looked at the numbers when you analyzed the fruit, it looked like the grapes were ready by the middle of September, but a lot of it didn't taste ready, so you really had to be patient.  People who picked based on those numbers got wines that just aren't fleshy and deeply flavored," an assertion that was confirmed by a number of '09s I tasted this year.

But in the southern regions, from McMinnville down into Eola-Amity Hills, Vlossak added, "the harvest was later, even much later.  Most of the north was finished before the south even started to pick, but we brought fruit in at under 24 degrees Brix and the wines are tighter and racier, which is bizarre."  He told me that pHs for his southern vineyard wines are "around 3.2, which no way suggests a late harvest, even though it was."

Many producers are comparing 2009 to 2002 because of the large crop and the forward character of the wines.  "They're open and opulent and look like five-to-seven-year wines, which is an ideal pinot drinking window for most people," said Anderson.  Peterson-Nedry calls it "a vintage of texture and ripeness in the Ribbon Ridge area.  A lot of fruit came in at around 26 degrees Brix and some of the wines' pHs are high, like around 3.8, so they're going to taste great right out of the gate."  Vintage generalizations as a rule are dangerous, and 2009 in the Willamette Valley makes that point strongly.  One cannot even generalize within a winery's portfolio this year, which means that there's lots of exploring and tasting to do.