Oregon Pinot Noir Update

In the eyes of most Willamette Valley winemakers 2012 is a pinot vintage for the record books, and by all accounts the market is in agreement:  the wines have sold swiftly and in many cases are all gone at the wineries and even at the wholesale and retail levels in many markets.  A smaller than normal yield meant that the wines would be allocated, regardless, but as soon as word got out about the overall high quality of the wines all bets were off.  A number of retailers I've spoken to reported that they're selling through their '12s, especially those from big-name wineries, as quickly as they can get them, and that they could easily sell twice as much.  In a sense this is the same phenomenon that pinot producers in northern California are experiencing, the big difference being that the crop down south was usually huge.

The year started off slowly with budbreak occurring in the third week of April--a week later than normal--and there was scant rain through flowering, which resulted in a small fruit set.  Clusters tended to be small and tight, with small berries, which ensured an overall low yield.  The weather was dry and warm through July and August, meaning that there was no disease pressure.  There was also plenty of sunshine with no real heat spikes, which kept the uptake of sugar in the grapes steady and skin tannins in check as well.  Harvesting mostly took place between the end of September and the third week of October under picture-perfect conditions in which growers could harvest to suit their style, with no pressure from the weather to rush things or hang around waiting for something to happen, as in 2011.

Two thousand twelve was a much warmer and drier season than 2011--which was actually flat-out cold--and 2010 as well, so the wines of 2012 are markedly different in style from those earlier vintages.  A nitpicker could point out that while acidity levels were definitely healthy in 2012, they could be a bit on the low side, especially if one is looking for wines that will age for a really long time.  But how many people drink pinot noir, much less from the New World, with significant age, as in a decade or more, anyway?  It could also be argued that alcohol levels can be high in 2012, but few of the wines that I tasted manifested their alcohol in an unfriendly manner, unless one's measuring stick is wine from Oregon's coldest, rainiest vintages.

Broadly speaking, the Willamette Valley's 2012 pinots are fleshy and fruit-dominated, with round tannins and forward personalities.  The fruit tends to the darker side of the pinot spectrum--think cherry and blackberry rather than strawberry and raspberry, much less cranberry and redcurrant--and this gives the wines massive crowd appeal.  The best wines also have the depth to age, so don't be fooled by their accessible nature in the early going.  Still, I'd err on the young side with most '12s, if for no other reason than to enjoy their boisterous fruit and velvety textures.

With 2012 we see the converse to 2011:  even entry-level wines display uncommon depth, richness and density, with darker fruit character and elevated alcohol levels; many producers whose wines are typically in the 12.5% to 13% range made wines that cruise up to or even beyond 14%.  While the earlier vintage has a number of enthusiasts, I wonder how much of these drinkers' enthusiasm is at least partially a political, anti-ripeness statement, which I believe was often the case with the 2007s and 2005s as well.  It's fashionable in some wine circles to deride ripe, fruit-driven wines (like the Willamette Valley '12s), warm regions and warm vintages in general by extolling the virtues of growing regions and vintages that display traits that are the polar opposite, often emphatically so.  While it's true that 2011 (and '07 and '05) made a number of pure, understated, lively and often intensely flavored pinots, there are also plenty that are shrill and pinched.  That's just what the vineyards were dealt by nature, in the form of cold weather, rain and a lack of sunshine, with the predictable results.  The best winemakers dealt with it and the results are often stunning.  But undernourished doesn't necessarily translate to elegant, just as ripeness doesn't always mean clumsy and lacking in balance.

The best 2011s do indeed show very good delineation and site character, or at least regional specificity.  But a high level of acidity is present in most of the wines, and a number of them come off as somewhat attenuated.  Many pinot lovers view the high acidity as a positive quality and that includes me, but in reasonable doses.  One also should be wary of the potential ageworthiness of wines that lack sufficient material, or concentration, to go along with their high acidity.  While these wines may very well endure on that acidity, they may have little else going for them down the road.  The same can be said for wines that have tannins too strong for their fruit--or, of course, loads of fruit but insufficient structure.  Suffice it to say that if your tastes run away from pinot noir with sweet, plush fruit and seamless, velvety texture, plenty of 2011s will be more to your style, while the mostly fruit-driven, often Rubenesque '12s will likely leave you, if not your guests or customers, cold.