Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem and Rollin Soles of Argyle, two of Oregon’s most forward-thinking winemakers, came to town recently on behalf of the the Oregon Wine Center, a collection of older wines in hand to demonstrate how well the state’s wines can age.
I recently reported on some of my own research, in which Adelsheim, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash and Shea poured me vertical tastings of specific Pinot Noirs through the past decade. This tasting of 30 wines broadened the scope. Only 12 were Pinot Noirs. The rest were Rieslings, Chardonnays, Cabernets, Merlots and a couple of Syrahs, selected by a panel of Oregon winemakers after tasting more than 150 wines submitted. The vintages ranged from 1979 to 2005. The tasting was not blind.
Executive summary: Nothing in the tasting would convince anyone that anything other than Pinot Noir deserves to be Oregon’s star. On the other hand, there were some tantalizing Rieslings and Syrahs.
We started with six Rieslings, and on my scorecard Peterson-Nedry's Chehalem Riesling Reserve Corral Creek 1998 and Soles' Argyle Dry Riesling Reserve Oregon 1991 were the standouts. The refined Chehalem (91 points, non-blind) retained its freshness and balance, letting its pear and mineral flavors float through an airy texture, and the still-tight and the lively Argyle (92 points, non-blind) sang with pineapple and pear. Can Riesling age in Oregon? Clearly, yes.
2005s from Anam Cara (89 points, non-blind, light, silky) and Brooks (86 points, non-blind, tight, refreshing, if slightly bitter) were still kicking. On the other hand, two Amity wines, the Dry Riesling Oregon 1988 and 1995, were tart and earthy.
The six Chardonnays were mostly good. I liked the minerality of Adelsheim Chardonnay Willamette Valley Caitlin’s Reserve 2003 (88 points, non-blind) and smooth generosity of the Firesteed Chardonnay W3 Oregon 2005 (88 points, non-blind) but not the excessive oak character of Chehalem Chardonnay Willamette Valley Ian’s Reserve 2002 (84 points, non-blind) or the tired bottle of Domaine Serene Chardonnay Willamette Valley Clos du Soleil 2001 (80 points, non-blind). Best were the Argyle Chardonnay Willamette Valley Nuthouse 1999 (90 points, non-blind) still tight, generous, vibrant, and long, and the Chehalem Ian’s 1998 from magnum (89 points, non-blind), still vibrant, but delivering a cascade of mature flavors.
The oldest Pinot Noirs included a beautifully aromatic, if wiry in structure, Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1979 (86 points, non-blind), and an elegant, charming Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve 1993 (91 points, non-blind), still showing pretty currant and spice flavors. Amity Pinot Noir Winemakers Reserve 1985 and Ponzi Pinot Noir Reserve 1991 were DOA, badly oxidized bottles. I also had some reservations about Archery Summit Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1995 (88 points, non-blind), which compromised its lovely cherry and spice flavors with hard-edged tannins and prominent oak notes.
The best wines were in the 1996 to 1999 range, underlining the findings in my earlier verticals, in which none of the wines were too old. Cristom Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Louise Vineyard 1996 (92 points, non-blind) was impressive for its gorgeous currant and earth flavors on a light, elegant frame. Also at the apex of their aging curves were Chehalem Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Reserve 1996 (91 points, non-blind), delicate, refined and brimming with currant and plum sweetness against meaty flavors, and Domaine Serene Evenstad 1997 (90 points, non-blind), showing a nice mix of red and black fruits on an elegant frame despite a rainy vintage.
A couple of 1998s also hit the mark. Bethel Heights Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Southeast Block 1998 (92 points, non-blind), fragrant with mineral and tomato leaf overtones to the crisp berry flavors, and Hamacher Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1998 (91 points, non-blind) laid mineral and floral overtones onto dark fruit on a velvety frame.
My favorite of the bunch was Argyle’s Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Spirithouse 1999 (93 points, non-blind), still youthful but showing complexity of gorgeous fruit against supple texture and a sense of refinement.
The labels on these Pinots showed alcohol levels between 12 and 13.7 percent, proving that big, rangy structure is not necessary for aging potential. What these wines had was balance. Intensity? Yes. Weight? Not so much. In my view, that’s Pinot. In the past decade Oregon had some hot vintages, and average alcohol levels have sometimes climbed into the mid 14s, but the better winemakers seem to be getting consistently below 14 since the late heat wave of 2006. The wines just taste fresher and more refined in that range, and they don't seem to be missing any richness or depth.
In a final set of warm-climate reds, the classiest wines came from viticultural areas that Oregon shares with Washington (Walla Walla and Columbia valleys). Seven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley Reserve 1998 (89 points, non-blind) balances its minty notes with pure blueberry fruit that lingers well. Riper and more generous, Rockblock Syrah Walla Walla Valley Seven Hills Vineyard 2002 (91 points, non-blind), from the same vineyard, demonstrates how good Syrah can be from that part of the world. Age unfortunately has raised the prominence of vegetal characteristics in L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Walla Walla Valley 1999 (79 points, non-blind) and Sineann Merlot Columbia Valley 2000 (80 points, non-blind).
For the record, however, I also liked Griffin Creek’s two wines from Southern Oregon, its Syrah Rogue Valley 1998 (88 points, non-blind), with smoky, tarry notes and good fruit, a tad better than its Merlot Rogue Valley Vineyard Blend 2001 (86 points, non-blind), soft and generous but simpler.
Steven Sherman — san francisco — June 23, 2010 4:09pm ET
Paul-kendall De Lancellotti — newberg,oregon — June 23, 2010 6:28pm ET
Leonard Cupo M D — Honolulu, Hawaii — June 23, 2010 10:14pm ET
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