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Oregon's 2010s Could Be Special

Wines from Owen Roe, Evening Land and St. Innocent show promise
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 13, 2011 2:56pm ET

Day two of my sweep through Oregon sampling the 2010 vintage started with a visit with David O'Reilly at Owen Roe, one of the few wineries that devotes as much attention to Washington as Oregon. It focuses on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Oregon, which account for about 30 percent of its production, sourcing its Chardonnays, Cabernets, Merlots and Syrahs from Washington grapes. Owen Roe is a négociant, making its wines from purchased grapes. Some of the sources rank among the best in both states.

Originally, Owen Roe made all of its wines in a winery tucked behind a farmhouse near the entrance to Champoeg State Park. In 2007, O'Reilly leased an old dairy in Sunnyside, Wash., to make the Washington wines, but plans to upgrade it into a modern facility crumbled when the projected cost of rehabilitating the old building skyrocketed. Production moved back to the original Oregon location last year, but O'Reilly hopes to build a winery and tasting room at a 40-acre vineyard he purchased just outside the city of Yakima (near the same freeway exit as Sageland) in time for the 2012 vintage.

As for the 2010s, O'Reilly decided not to make single-vineyard bottlings because of the small size of the vintage. "I love the 2010 Pinots," he said, "but I needed all I could get to give the wine richness and character."

Some of that richness comes from a relatively large component of malic acid in the grapes, O'Reilly explained. "So even though the alcohols are only around 13 percent, the wines have a rich palate weight to them," he said. "Malolactic fermentation softens acidity, makes for richer texture and deeper flavors." Usually around 1 or 2 grams per liter, malic acids came in at around 3 grams in his 2010s.

The 2010s I tasted, all recently bottled, included a supple, velvety Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton with gorgeous currant and red berry flavors, and a refined, delicate Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, all red fruits and cinnamon. The high-volume Sharecropper Pinot Noir came off as a bit rustic, but ripe and flavorful. This wine has supplanted the old O'Reilly label with the drawing of the Irish wolfhound on the label. I'll miss that dog.

There was also a crisp, delicate Pinot Gris Eola-Amity Hills Crawford-Beck Vineyard with bright flavors. The Washington wines, for the record, included a racy, minerally Chardonay DuBrul Vineyard, which O'Reilly believes is the best white wine he's made.

At Evening Land, whence have come some of Oregon's best Chardonnays since its first vintage in 2007, I tasted barrel samples that won't be bottled until after the current harvest. The two cuvées from its own Seven Springs Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills both show more fruit than the 2009 did, La Source offering voluptuous pear and green guava against tangy acidity. The estate's signature minerality seemed hidden in that one, but it came out strongly in the higher-priced Summum, all crushed gravel, grapefruit and green berries with a hint of ripe peach on the finish.

In 2010 Evening Land has bottled a separate Chardonnay called Mad Hatter, a blend of estate fruit and some from Mount Angel Vineyard, a new independent site located due east of Salem in the foothills of the Cascade Range. I found the wine bright, citrusy, with pear and quince flavors, not as minerally as the Seven Springs wines, but vibrant.

The 2010 reds, still in barrel, all display strong mineral notes weaving through ripe red fruit, some cherry, others raspberry. If you want minerality, there may be no better examples than Evening Land's estate bottlings from Oregon.

The skies had darkened and it was raining hard when I arrived at my last stop of the day, St. Innocent, next to Zenith Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills. Proprietor Mark Vlossak seemed unfazed, however. As he said in my recent blog on vintage swings in Oregon, in his experience grapes can continue to ripen in the rain. As long as they don't turn moldy, they can make gorgeous wine. And his 2010s prove it.

Among the bottled wines, the Chardonnay Freedom Hill Vineyard, fermented in old barrels, showed creamy texture and a mineral note underneath caramel and apricot. The flavors dance. The Pinot Noir Villages Cuvée, consisting of wines made from young vines and those selected out of the single-vineyard bottlings. Light on the palate, it tasted fresh and focused, with a nice balance of dark and light fruit flavors.

From barrel, the wines from Temperance Hill and Justice in Eola-Amity Hills, Momtazi in McMinnville, Shea in Yamhill-Carlton and Freedom Hill in the Coast Range showed red fruit flavors, silky textures, light body and harmonious balance. These strike me as precision wines, delicate but flavorful, reflective of their sites. More evidence that 2010 could be special in Oregon.

Next up: Final thoughts from tastings at Ken Wright, Argyle, Domaine Serene, Chehalem and Bergström.

Follow Harvey Steiman on Twitter at twitter.com/harveywine

Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 15, 2011 4:57am ET
Last year we picked our vineyard near Eugene Oct 22-25, and altho sugars were not above 22 brix, the wines have great tension, structure and fruit. Thanks, Harvey, for pointing out the big upside of the 2010 vintage.

2011 has the potential to be another lovely vintage.
This year may be even a few days behind last year, but the fruit maturity is advanced, with better developed flavors and skin color. Clusters are bigger and yields, in spite of vigorous green thinning, are better than 2010. And few ravenous starling/robins this year. We plan to pick in full Halloween costume. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of our demise are premature.

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