Tasting Pinot Noir from barrel in some of Oregon’s top cellars always yields some tales of the unforeseen. In this state, every vintage is different. For the 2009 vintage the surprises are pleasant ones.
Vintners had a lot to overcome. A perfect spring set a huge crop, with the potential to dilute flavor. Midsummer heat stopped the vine growth in many vineyards, setting up a situation where everything would seem to ripen at once. Rainy weather in early September made everyone nervous about mold. A late-September hot spell as the grapes were ripening introduced the potential for over-the-top alcohols and flavors.
“The heat wave at the end of July and early August was the longest and hottest we have ever seen,” said Sam Tannahill, who makes the wines at Rex Hill and A to Z. “Most of the vines just shut down.” But not all of them. Vineyards on cooler sites were less affected. The result was a compressed vintage in which cooler sites, usually last to pick, ripened early, and warmer sites, usually first, ripened last.
At Brick House, owner Doug Tunnell explained, a small portion of his vineyard faces north. Exposed to less sun, it almost always ripens very late and seldom gets completely ripe. In 2009, it never shut down during the summer heat wave and consequently ripened first. The sample I tasted had pure, sweet fruit and silky tannins.
The vintners I visited last week mostly managed to dodge these bullets. If the wines lack the extraordinary finesse and elegance of the 2008s, they make up for it with bold, ripe flavors without the extra muscle that marred the most recent hot vintage, 2006.
In that year many of these same winemakers resorted to adding water to compensate for dehydrated grapes. This time there was much less shriveling of the grapes and the pickers could get the fruit off the vine while fresh flavors were still there.
“We had a really narrow window of opportunity in 2009,” said Lynn Penner-Ash, whose eponymous wines always seek that balance point between delicacy and richness. “One day we thought it wasn’t even close to being ready to pick and the next day the grapes were starting to wrinkle.”
As a result, leaving the grapes on the vine to pick up a little more flavor (“hang time”) could easily backfire in 2009. “This was a year when we preferred the early-picked fruit,” Penner-Ash added. It was also a year in which Oregon’s original clones—Wadenswil and Pommard—out-performed the Dijon clones that Oregon introduced in the 1990s.
To prove her point, Penner-Ash showed me four barrels from the winery’s home vineyard, called Dessin. The first, a Dijon clone called 777, showed firm texture and sweet fruit. Nice, but sturdy, not elegant. The next, a Pommard clone, showed much more open texture and delicacy along with pure cherry flavor. A barrel of early-picked fruit had a lovely lightness to it and a pretty coffee note. The later picked portion of the same part of the vineyard was denser, tougher. It was easy to see how well these elements could fit together in a deft blend, but the differences were more marked than usual.
At Shea Vineyard, owner Dick Shea showed me a variety of clones from several portions of his large vineyard. The stars were the ones from the Pommard clone. “Pommard can be the most gorgeous expression of Pinot,” he said, “but only when the year is good enough to get it ripe.”
It may seem like inside baseball to discuss the excellent performance of Pommard-planted vineyards in 2009, but it may not overstate the case to say that Pommard saved the vintage. In cellar after cellar I tasted outstanding wines made from this mainstay clone when the showier Dijon clones struggled to make something with refinement.
When the 2009s are finally bottled later this year and offered for sale in 2011, expect wines of power and dark fruit flavor but not nearly the high alcohol levels of the 2006 vintage. Based on these tastings, it should be a crowd-pleaser.
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — April 27, 2010 4:54pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 27, 2010 5:00pm ET
Greg Malcolm — St. Louis, Missouri — April 27, 2010 8:38pm ET
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