Oregon Pinot Noir

My spring trip to the Willamette Valley afforded me the chance to taste a number of the eagerly anticipated 2008 pinots and to discuss them with their producers. Numerous wineries are also just now releasing their top bottlings from 2007, and a handful are barely starting to sell their ‘07s. This staggered release schedule is quite different from California, where almost all pinot producers release the new vintage at roughly the same time.

Two thousand seven in Oregon is turning out to be a very interesting vintage if you stick to the top producers, especially the ones who waited out a major rainfall scare at the end of September and allowed their grapes to mature fully. (In fact, the heavy rains that had been predicted never materialized.) Those who rolled the dice with Oregon’s tricky, typically wet fall benefited from up to a full month of additional maturity, but the weather remained cool enough during this period that overripeness was not an issue. On the contrary: fans of elegant, fine-grained, balanced pinot noir, wines I would describe as “Burgundian,” should pay close attention to ’07 as these wines are mostly in stark contrast to the stereotype of rich, sweet and heavy New World pinot. The best examples will surprise with their ageworthiness; more than a few winemaking old-timers, such as Patty Green and Russ Raney, told me that ’07 was their personal ideal of pinot noir for cellaring.

Still, 2007 is caught in the shadow of 2008 and probably always will be. The hype machine was cranked up on the ’08s immediately after the harvest and hasn’t let up. The good news is that for the most part this is indeed an outstanding vintage for Oregon pinot. My tastings of the 2008s in Oregon and back in New York in late spring and early summer revealed what is probably the most consistently high-quality set of pinots from Oregon in the last two decades. The IWC isn’t prone to vintage generalizations but I’m not afraid to state that your odds of buying a good pinot noir from 2008 are better than with any previous vintage. As a group the wines show very appealing upfront fruit, yet they also have the balance and structure for at least mid-term aging. But I wonder how many of these bottles will see their fifth birthday: this is my fear for most American pinots, many of which wind up in restaurants where they are immediately drunk up and sold out by the time the next vintage rolls around. I’ve been dipping into my 1993s, 1998s and 1999s recently and have been extremely happy that I let those bottles rest in my cellar. Enjoy the ’08s now, by all means, but try to defer immediate gratification and stash at least some of them away to open around 2020.

Budbreak in 2008 came almost a month behind schedule and the growing season was cool—too cool for the mental health of most producers here. According to Lynn Penner-Ash, “2008 was pretty scary at the beginning because of the late budbreak. We only had about half budbreak at the beginning of May and veraison happened as late as the second week of September, which is wild.” She told me that she usually has “a pretty good idea” about the crop by early July, “but when we looked at the vines around the 4th there just wasn’t much fruit.” With the delayed season came low production, which can only serve to heat up an already hot market for the wines.

What distinguishes 2008 is that the Willamette Valley enjoyed a long, rain-free run in September and October, which is virtually unprecedented here. Daytime temperatures during that period were typically warm but not broiling, so spiking sugar levels weren’t a problem. Just as important, nighttime temperatures often dropped into the 40s, which helped the grapes retain healthy natural acidity. Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem said that most vineyards were able to be harvested two weeks later than normal, and that most growers brought in grapes at optimal ripeness, depending on what Brix numbers they were trying to attain and with no weather-related maladies that would require severe selection in the vines or on the sorting tables. Many more producer comments on this vintage are incorporated into my grower profiles and the tasting notes themselves.