Oregon Pinot Noir Update

After three vintages of mediocre to average quality, Oregon fortunes have taken a major turn for the better in 1998 and 1999. The '98 harvest was clearly the finest in Oregon since at least 1993; in terms of the sheer number of outstanding pinot noir bottlings that will ultimately be offered I have little doubt that this is Oregon's greatest vintage to date. The best wines have it all: deep, fresh colors; sappy, complex aromatics; concentration and depth of flavor; solid supporting acidity and ripe, even tannins; length on the palate. Mother Nature did the crop-thinning many producers are still unwilling to do for themselves. Harvest conditions were mostly dry. For pinot noir lovers who have soured on Oregon in recent years due to disappointing wines at often excessive prices, 1998 is a vintage that merits enthusiastic buying. And 1999 appears to be a worthy successor to '98. Despite a very late flowering and a cool summer, conditions remained almost miraculously dry through the end of October, and some Willamette Valley winemakers believe their '99s may surpass their '98s in quality. Grape sugars were high, and so were acid levels thanks to cool evenings in September and October.

The 1998 growing season and wines. A cold, rainy spring resulted in a poor fruit set, with small clusters and small grapes. From the outset, crop levels were typically down 30% to 50% from the norm, setting the stage for early and complete ripening and concentrated wines. August and September were warm, and the grape skins reached thorough ripeness in most vines. Sugar levels were average to above average, and acidities were generally adequate to good. The wines have plenty of tannic support, but the tannins tend to be round and well-integrated. The harvest was generally a few days earlier than average-and rain was only a factor toward the end of the harvesting period. About the only reservation expressed to me by growers was the fear that the fruit did not enjoy the long hang times normally associated with complex flavors. My tastings to date of these wines indicate that these fears are largely unfounded: in addition to possessing superb stuffing, the '98s offer far more flavor interest than the last three vintages, while showing much better balance than the freakishly ripe and often rather Amarone-like '94s, many of which peaked before they were bottled.

I tasted more than 80 examples of the '98 vintage from barrel last summer in Oregon, and it was immediately clear that this was a special vintage. My recent tastings of finished wines tell me that this quality is making it into the bottle, as the notes below make clear. My extensive tastings of current releases also include a number of the state's more important bottlings from the '97 vintage. Although there are many diffuse, washed-out '97s, as well as too many that suffer from dry-edged finishes owing to underripe skins or excessive acidification, the best examples are supple, attractive, red-fruity wines that will please tasters over the next few years. Although the '97s do not generally offer the tannic structure or flavor interest of the best '96s, there are some noteworthy exceptions.

Current pricing. Pinot noir prices vary tremendously from estate to estate in Oregon. Some producers went astray in '94, using the small size of the crop and strong early buzz to hike prices to levels that have proved unsustainable. Most high-priced Oregon pinots from '95, '96 and '97 are poor value, and some of these bottles have now backed up in the distribution pipeline. Other wineries maintained their sanity and have kept prices moderate. It remains to be seen whether Oregon's top names will ratchet prices up another notch or two with the '98s. Early evidence is that most producers won't repeat the mistakes made in 1994. Clearly, the healthy size and mostly high quality of the '99 crop of wines is exerting a moderating influence on pricing behavior for '98s.