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Oregon Pinot Noir: The 2013s & 2012 Late Releases

The Challenging 2013 Growing Season

Most of the 2013 growing season in Oregon looked like a virtual carbon copy of the superb, already legendary 2012 vintage. But Mother Nature changed her mind at the last minute, in this case at the very end of September, dumping an epic amount of rain that continued to fall into early October, dashing any hopes for a vintage even close to the quality of 2012. 

The turn in the weather was a real heartbreaker for the industry because the growing season had gotten off to a highly auspicious start, with a moderate, dry winter followed by a severe heat spike (pushing temperatures up to almost 80 degrees) in the last week of March that caused budbreak to occur at the beginning of April. That’s unprecedented here (budbreak occurred in the third week of April in 2012 and during the first week of May in 2011, for comparison) and growers were confident that they might actually enjoy two consecutive superlative vintages, which, again, is a rarity in cooler wine regions like Oregon. The spring remained warm and dry and flowering began in the second week of June. The weather continued to cooperate, and spirits and expectations were running high for an anticipated early September harvest, which, we as now know, sadly wasn’t to be.

The steady rains through September and into October, and the excessive water that accumulated in the vineyards caused many berries, which at the time were almost or even fully ripe, to swell up and split open, bringing on rot, which the humid weather also encouraged. Many damaged grapes, in fact, actually began fermenting on the vine, with resulting acetic acid build-up (read: vinegar) that, needless to say, is about the last thing that winegrowers want to see. Given such conditions, growers had few options by mid-September; start picking then, and do it quickly, followed by a severe selection of the fruit on the sorting table, or try to make an equally severe selection in the vineyards and hope that the weather would stabilize and allow the remaining fruit to reach full maturity. Even then, dramatic culling of grapes in the winery would be a requirement, so there was no getting away from a lot of hard work and loss of crop.

Some Strong Wines, Just Not Much To Go Around 

Whichever harvesting choice growers made, production was off severely in 2013, with a number of producers telling me that they made their most draconian selections ever. Many vineyards that normally produce single-site wines saw their tiny quantities of fruit blended away into regional and even generic Willamette Valley and even Oregon bottlings, either because of questions about quality or simply because there wasn’t enough juice to fill vats or to justify the effort to make microscopic quantities. If there is ever a year to tread carefully and focus one’s wine dollars on the top wineries, it’s 2013. And the best estates often did make strong ‘13s: wines with noteworthy energy and focus and vibrant red fruit and spice character that will typically allow for early drinkability. There are a fair number of ‘13s that I’d happily own and drink over the next decade but the vast majority should be consumed on the early side. Broadly speaking, wine lovers who prefer a richer, heftier, dark-fruited style of Pinot will likely find many of the wines wanting. Conversely, those who think that the wines from warmer vintages can be a bit too much and prefer a racier style will likely find plenty to like from ’13, much as they did from 2011, 2007 and 2005.

Unfair Comparisons and Unreasonable Expectations

Even considering the number of solid and even excellent 2013s that I tasted during my annual trip to Oregon as well as back home in New York, the 2013s will always remain in the long shadow of the 2012s. The 2013s had a very tough act to follow from the get-go and the widely publicized weather difficulties of that year quickly caused many wine lovers and members of the trade to start back-filling with whatever ‘12s were available in the marketplace and to try to push to the front of the line for late-released '12s (many of which are reviewed in this article) while essentially writing off the ‘13s. I’d be the last to claim that many, if any, 2013s are equal or superior to their 2012 siblings but, again, what vintages in memory can compare to 2012 in terms of the sheer number of outstanding wines produced? None that I can think of.

Cristom's Vineyards at the eastern end of the Eola-Amity Hills

It’s better to view the ‘13s in the context of similar vintages that, at their best, produced lively, tangy, red-fruity wines; 2011 and 2007 come immediately to mind. It’s a little early to say if the best ‘13s will match up to the top wines from ’11 and ’07, and even then it’s going to be a wine-by-wine situation. This is a winemaker’s as well as grower’s vintage, to be sure, because to get something good into the bottle required great work, attention and sacrifice by both parties. In the best cases, things turned out pretty well, especially when the wines are assessed without being compared to a monumental year like ’12.

How To Approach the 2013s

The key to a successful foray into the ‘13s is first to understand that in most instances the wines lean to the red fruit side of Pinot Noir; they tend to be tangy and tightly wound but often lack concentration. While some wines may put on weight and gain sweetness with bottle age, that’s a gamble I’ll personally leave to others. The 2013s also tend to lack the tannic structure for more than mid-term aging although they will likely endure on their acidity, which I suspect will usually outlast the fruit in this vintage. Thus, the smart money will stick to producers with a track record of success in vintages with similar flavor, weight and structure profiles, like 2011, 2007 and 2005. A number of wines from those earlier years have aged gracefully and provided plenty of drinking pleasure to Pinot lovers who prize lightness and zesty red fruit over power, heft and darker fruit character.

Speaking of Those 2012s

It was a genuine pleasure to be able to taste through so many superb wines as I worked my way through the 2012s that were released subsequent to my report last summer, and I also tasted some pretty impressive examples from the often erratic 2011 vintage. The high quality of the ‘12s has been discussed extensively by now but it bears repeating that a near-perfect growing season and harvest set the stage for what is, by my reckoning, the most consistently outstanding set of Pinots I’ve experienced from Oregon since I first started tasting the wines in 1985 and visiting the region in 1995. The best wines—and it’s a formidably large list in 2012—are must-buys for fans of the region as well as for novices. Even those collectors who are normally skeptical about New World Pinot Noir owe it to themselves to see what Oregon can achieve with this finicky variety under ideal conditions, which are a genuine rarity in this normally cool, grey and often rainy area - hotter vintages like 2009, 2006 and 2003 aside.

Pinot Noir undergoing veraison during the 2012 growing season

The only criticism I’ve heard leveled at the ‘12s is that the wines are too friendly (the wine snob version is “too obvious” or “too easy”), but since the vast majority of Pinot lovers—and wine drinkers in general—don’t approach drinking the stuff as an exercise in masochism, such comments are meaningless. It’s a vintage of such consistent quality that one can grab a 2012 off the shelf or wine list with a remarkably high likelihood of getting something that’s utterly delicious.

A Word on Oregon Pinot Pricing, and Relative Value

As in every prime wine-growing region, prices for the best Oregon pinots have been steadily rising, but with only a few exceptions I haven’t detected much that’s truly rapacious. Yes, a handful of wines are commanding prices upwards of $100 a bottle but in the grand scheme these represent just a drop in the barrique. It’s still possible to buy some of the state’s best Pinots for $50 or less, and that’s something that no other world-class region that grows Pinot can claim. In a world in which $50+ village-level Burgundies and $150 premier cru wines (let’s not even talk about grand crus) have become the norm, Oregon’s best examples are looking like outright steals these days. In fact, I’ll go far as to say that in a vintage like 2012, and quite possibly 2014 and even 2015, there’s no richer source of value in high-end Pinot Noir than Oregon.

Another Vintage of a Lifetime? Maybe Two in a Row?

I had the chance to taste a number of barrel samples from 2014, as well as a few bottled wines back at home in recent weeks. As improbable as it may sound, 2014 is shaping up as a vintage that’s at least the equal of 2012. The growing season remained almost two weeks ahead of schedule all year thanks to an early flowering and to consistently warm, dry weather—and warm nights—through the spring and summer. In fact, 2014 registered the highest heat accumulation numbers ever recorded, surpassing even 2006. There was some welcome rain at the end of September (many growers had begun harvesting during the second week of the month) that refreshed the vines, and the result was a pain-free harvest of perfectly ripe grapes that never experienced disease pressure. Thus the crop was up to 50% larger than that of 2013. The downside is that drought stress has begun taking its toll on unirrigated vines (an issue that extended through the 2015 harvest, by the way), a situation that a number of producers mentioned as a looming issue that will have to be addressed not far down the road.

Pre-veraison Pinot Noir at Amalie Robert Vineyard during the 2015 growing season

Looking even farther ahead, this year’s harvest looks like it could match up to 2014 and 2012 in sheer quality and, in terms of yield, exceeds the healthy crop of ’14. Conditions throughout 2015 were just as warm and dry as in the previous vintage and, according to growers that I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, musts are dark, aromatics are explosive, flavors are concentrated and tannins are strong. The possible Achilles’ heel of the vintage is that there may be too much concentration and tannins to make wines of elegance and balance. The material seems to be in place to yield some seriously impressive wines, at the very least from the standpoint of power and depth. But somehow I doubt that fans of 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2013 are going to find much to get excited about.

A Word on Pinot Noir Clones in Oregon

Spend even a few minutes with an Oregon producer and the conversation will inevitably turn to clonal selection. And there’s plenty to talk about. The family of Pinot clones planted across the Willamette Valley can essentially be broken down into two branches: the heritage clones and the Dijon clones. The range of clones is still expanding as growers continue to bring in new (for the region) selections such as suitcase clones smuggled in from France, especially Burgundy, and well-established clones from California such as Swan and Calera. For now these newcomers make up just a small percentage of the Pinot planted in Oregon but their presence is on the rise.

Two Pinot Noir clones (the heritage clones) of Swiss (Wadenswil) and French (Pommard) origin were originally planted in Oregon by the first wave of growers like David Lett, Dick Erath, Charles Coury and Dick Ponzi in the 1960s and 1970s. There was also a third clone that’s still scattered around called Gamay Beaujolais but it never really became a factor in fine wine production and is more of a curiosity today, albeit a sometimes interesting one. These heritage clones were selected from the nursery of the University of California-Davis and became the backbone of the Oregon Pinot Noir industry.

David Lett poses in front of a barn in Dundee, Oregon, with the first vines for The Eyrie Vineyards in 1965

The Wadenswil clone was the only one planted by David Lett at his pioneering vineyard in 1965 and he selected it for its ability to ripen in cold climates and for its resistance to vine diseases. The Pommard clone first arrived in the early 1970s thanks to Dick Erath and Charles Coury, and most Oregon Pinots through the 1990s were made from some combination of Wadenswil and Pommard. Coury had also reportedly smuggled in some Pinot cuttings from Alsace that he mixed in with his Pommard plantings and later sold to other growers along with the Pommard, which is what his customers thought they were getting. In time it became clear that this was a different beast and it became known as the Coury clone. Some of it is still planted today and is even made into single-clone bottlings by a handful of wineries.

A shift in plantings began in 1987 with the first arrival of three so-called and aptly named Dijon clones (113, 114 and 115) selected by David Adelsheim in 1984 from the nurseries of the University of Dijon. Interestingly, these three clones were isolated from cuttings given to Dr. Raymond Bernard of the University by Jean-Marie Ponsot, whose family estate in Morey-Saint-Denis in Burgundy is one of the most renowned in the world. These selections were chosen because, like the Wadenswil, they were suited to early ripening and disease resistance, both prized attributes in Oregon’s cool climate where late harvesting continues to be a risky undertaking.

Today, Dijon selections dominate Oregon’s vineyards, with no sign of losing popularity. In fact, new generations of Dijon clones (notably 667, 777 and 828) have found widespread popularity here since the first three caught on, as growers have become more focused on matching clones to specific sites. Today the most widely planted Dijon clones are 115, 667 and 777, and most Oregon Pinots are made with some combination of the three, with heritage and often suitcase clones in the mix as well.

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Oregon Pinot Noir Update, Josh Raynolds, July 2014

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--Josh Raynolds

Photo credits: John D'Anna, Jason Lett