Tasting last week through a couple dozen Oregon Pinot Noirs, mostly 2009s—and therefore quite fragile in structure—I found myself musing over why some of them made my eyes light up while others just seemed weak.
Some of my friends, those who prefer wines with transparency and nuanced qualities, would probably have loved all of them. This is the kind of wine, they might say, that's so hard to find in this era of big flavor (and often big alcohols). Others, the folks who like bigger, bolder wines, might have dismissed them all as wimpy.
Me, I am a wine omnivore. I like big, bounding Syrahs and sleek, racy Pinot Noirs. Even within the Pinot Noir category, I can appreciate the richness and plushness of some of the bigger wines even though my ideal for the grape is a wine with more transparency than density.
No question, the degree of difficulty is higher in making a great lighter-style wine. It's easier to achieve richness, suppleness, ripe flavors and tannins in bigger wines. Lighter wines can come off as one-dimensional or weak. Or, since the grapes for a lighter style are often picked early (i.e., less ripe), the acidity can stick out or the tannins can have a green character. Creating a balance among fruit character and the complexities of minerality or earthiness or floral notes or spice presents a challenge, but it can define what Pinot Noir is all about for me.
One wine in this blind tasting put things into sharp relief. I can't identify it because the review has not appeared yet, but I can describe it. On first sip, it whispered. It struck me as very light, almost devoid of intensity. But something caught my attention on the finish, a haunting hint of orange or citrus, mixed with the background tone of raspberry. I took another sip, and the flavors started to define themselves. A mineral note swam into view, the citrus note expanded into something reminiscent of Earl Grey tea, and the finish picked up momentum, fleshing out the raspberries with hints of red currant as it all lingered enticingly and persistently.
One of the most important assets of an outstanding wine is a long finish, and this one had it. Its initial sense of lightness took on an ethereal quality as the flavors expanded without adding any weight. It was as if they were hovering over the delicate framework.
That, indeed, was the point. The flavors came through, showed depth and complexity, and lingered on the finish. That's the difference between wines that are just light and those that deserve to be described as delicate.
Pinot Noir can do that—balance a complex array of aromas and flavors on the head of a pin. It's finesse, which I define as a wine's ability to deliver the unexpected, whether it's this delicate wine's surprisingly deep and seductive flavors or the deft dance of a richer-styled wine that finds welcome freshness and vitality.
With this finesse, I rated it 94 points, just shy of classic. It was a heck of a wine but the range of flavor did not get to the classic level (95 points or higher). Many wine drinkers will shrug it off as wimpy, simply because it did not reach out and grab them on the first sip. I always try to be patient and see if the wine will come to me. This one did.
I wish I could say that was the case with all of the 2009s in my tasting, but alas, the vintage is not as consistently fine as the 2008s were, the products of a cool summer and perfect weather at harvest. In 2009, vineyards struggled to get things ripe. Those who succeeded made delicate wines. Unfortunately, I tasted through a lot of wimpy bottles to find the good ones.