Harry Peterson-Nedry, whose Chehalem winery produces some of Oregon's finest, poured me a mini-vertical of two of his Pinot Noirs to compare side by side. As we tasted through his Chehalem Reserve and his RR from 2002 through 2007, we ended up talking a lot more about tannins and structure than anything else.
Both wines come from the Ridgecrest Vineyard, with 38 acres of Pinot Noir in its 55 acres. Peterson-Nedry planted the site in 1982, making it one of the oldest in what is now known as the Ribbon Ridge AVA. He divides the grapes among three different bottlings. Some go into one labeled Chehalem Ridgecrest Vineyard. The most delicate barrels go into the Chehalem Reserve, and the biggest, most tannic make one called RR.
The vintner considers the RR so different that he bottles it under a separate label. Originally it was called Ribbon Ridge Vineyard, but when the name became more appropriate for the appellation, Peterson-Nedry offered Ribbon Ridge as a name for the AVA, and changed the winery name to RR starting with the 2005 vintage.
Brick House, Adelsheim, Archery Summit, Beaux Frères and other wineries that have vineyards in the AVA certainly appreciate that. At least they should. Changing the name of the winery avoided some of the contention that plagued the naming of other AVAs in Willamette Valley.
"Chehalem Reserve is a barrel selection, almost exclusively from Ridgecrest,” said Peterson-Nedry. "It's focused on an elegant, feminine style as much as the vintage will allow."
"When we take those barrels out of the mix, what's left is more structured. I use the word masculine. I used to add it to other bottlings for more backbone, but in 2002 I decided to bottle it separately.”
Both wines sell for around $60 a bottle. They are meant to be special, and I have rated several on release in the low 90s, others in the high 80s. They are wines of finesse, even the RR, and they sometimes disappoint me on their level of complexity. I wanted to see whether that developed in the bottle as expected.
In my experience, vineyards in Ribbon Ridge hit the dividing line between big, rich flavors and delicacy. Depending on the individual site and the winemaking style, the results can be grippy with tannins, or subtle and refined.
And that's what showed most prominently as Harry and I tasted through his wines. I expected the RR to shine in bigger, riper vintages, such as 2003 and 2006, and the Chehalem Reserve to play its finesse most effectively in the lighter years, such as 2007 and, to a lesser extent, 2004 and 2005.
In 2006, one of the hottest vintages on record in Oregon, the delicacy of the Reserve made it more expressive and welcoming than the RR, which seemed dark and brooding in comparison, and lacked that extra refinement that Pinot Noir can deliver. In 2004, a much more balanced year, the extra depth and power in the RR made it more expressive and complex than the Reserve. That's not the way they started. On release, I liked the delicacy of the Reserve better, but with a couple of years in the bottle, it shows less precision of flavor than the RR.
On the other hand, the 2005 Reserve seems to be fleshing itself out nicely, after a weak start. The 2005 RR still has the peppery character I liked so much on release, but the tannins need time to resolve. I like them equally now, but I preferred the RR early on.
There weren't any bad bottles. Generally, my scores in this tasting were within two or three points of the original ratings. We're talking nuances here, and time in the bottle seems to have shifted priorities for the wines.
If you're looking for perfect harmony in your Pinot Noir, this tasting suggests that we should look for styles that aim for delicacy in big vintages and those that try for more muscle in lighter ones. It makes sense, in a counterintuitive way.