Oregon Pinot Noir Update

My annual winter tastings of Oregon pinot noir focused on the 2000 vintage, but also included numerous early 2001 releases and some stragglers from 1999. Oregon has enjoyed a string of successful, mostly dry harvests since 1998, following three tricky years affected by rain. But although there are more competently made Oregon pinots in the marketplace today than ever before, I would still rank vintages 2000 and 2001 behind 1999 and 1998 in quality. And it must be said that dry autumns do not automatically produce outstanding pinot noir: too many Oregon wineries routinely bottle wines that are lackluster, often from overcropped young vines.

The 2000s offer fleshy textures and relatively early accessibility, but their fruit flavors are less primary and scented than those of 1999 and less sweet and concentrated than those of 1998, a year that featured very low crop levels. Only the best 2000s display real nuance and tension. Most growers describe 2000 as an unspectacular growing season without weather extremes. Crop loads were average, especially among conscientious growers who practice serious crop reduction. There were a couple of brief rainy spells in early September, but then a long, mostly dry period for the harvest, which for most estates took place a few days earlier than the norm. The 2000 fruit was generally nearly as ripe as that of 1999, but did not possess the earlier year's brisk acidity. The wines themselves show good texture and breadth but often just miss on clarity and intensity. Few 2000s have the vibrant primary fruit and floral notes, and the structure and grip, to suggest that they will improve in an exciting way in bottle and provide satisfying drinking for more than six or eight years of additional aging. Steve Doerner, winemaker at Cristom, pointed out that there was a fairly strong conversion of sugars to alcohol in 2000, especially among growers who use unpredictable native yeasts, with some of his wines going over 14% alcohol. This tendency of the vintage may partly explain the slightly blurry quality shown by 2000s from numerous producers.

The advantage of the year, though, is that most of the wines will give early pleasure. Ken Wright, who was responsible for a few of the vintage's finest releases (reviewed in Issue 101), describes the 2000s as "generous, fun, sweet wines, probably without the acidity levels for long-term cellaring." John Paul of Cameron describes the 2000s as "better restaurant wine than the '99s, in that they're so good early on."

Vintage 2001 witnessed significantly larger clusters and berries, which generally translated into higher yields. According to Michael Etzel of Beaux-Freres, highly variable cluster size made it difficult to predict crop levels even as late as early September. He added that he and a few of his neighbors were dismayed to find that some of the color of the 2001s fell out during the malolactic fermentations. John Paul added that the ripening in 2001 came on quickly during the second half of the harvest under warm conditions, and thus fruit from some vineyards benefitted from a bit less hang time than usual.

Perhaps the most common problem I found with current releases, other than diffuse aromas and flavors and lack of verve, is intrusive oakiness. Whether meager raw materials are simply being overwhelmed by oak, or wineries are being tempted by cost savings to use a percentage of American or Eastern European barrels, or they're not getting the highest-quality French barriques, too many wines show dominant torrefaction notes of chocolate, roast coffee and tar that overshadow their youthful fruit character and dry their finishes. While it's possible to appreciate the positive qualities of many of these wines, it's hard to get excited about bottles with nagging oaky bitterness, or to come back for a second glass.

The prices asked by many Oregon wineries for their reserve and vineyard-designated pinot bottlings have gotten ahead of themselves in recent years. In today's sluggish wine retail market, happily, there are signs of pricing moderation, even some price reductions. As is the case with Burgundy today, there are relatively few wines in 2000 or 2001 that merit significant price premiums.