On my third and final full day in Oregon, as I barrel-tasted more and more 2010 wines of delicacy and grace that also had ripe flavors, one thought kept recurring. This is a vintage that will either polarize Pinot Noir drinkers, or perhaps bring all wings of the party together.
The divisive issue is alcohol. Some Pinot drinkers, let's call them the traditional Burgundy wing, insist that anything over 14 percent alcohol in a Pinot Noir is a sin. Others sneer at low-alcohol Pinot as insipid and flavorless.
If the wines released over the coming months are as good across the board as the ones I have tasted in top-tier cellars, we could have détente in the Pinot world. (For notes on my visits to Beaux Frères, Sineann and Rex Hill, check out Day 1 of my visit; for Evening Land, Owen Roe and St. Innocent, Day 2.) At Ken Wright, for example, only three of his 10 single-vineyard bottlings edged past 13 percent alcohol. Lightness and airiness defined most of the wines, but lovely flavors persisted onto fine finishes.
I tasted wines of similar structure and flavor at Chehalem, where proprietor Harry Peterson-Nedry noted, "I don't think of 2010 as an ideal vintage. We don't want to harvest quite that late, and we had to work harder than we should have."
"I remember when 12 percent was not uncommon," said Wright, who has been making wine in Willamette Valley since the 1980s. "I just wish we had more wine. We expected to average 2 tons per acre, but the bird damage was the worst I've ever seen. Berries didn't ripen properly in 2010 so grapes were the only selection on their menu. We were lucky to get over 1 [ton per acre]."
That's why, for all the charms of the wines they made, Wright and other vintners hope 2010 is not a model for future vintages. Tiny yields were the only reason the wines attained their intensity of flavor and ripened physiologically despite the cool, rainy weather. But you can't make a living on 1 ton per acre.
The wines were a bit riper and richer at Domaine Serene, which goes for a riper style, showing more flesh than others. Erik Kramer, who only arrived as winemaker in April, showed me provisional blends for the reds, which won't be bottled until next year. Eleni Papadakis, the previous winemaker, oversaw the fermentations. At this stage, the Evenstad Reserve, with its ripe flavors and tight focus, was the most complete wine I tasted on this trip. All three of the Chardonnays showed vivid flavors and impressive length.
Splitting the differences, Bergström averaged in the low 13s on its alcohol levels in 2010, which makes Josh Bergström's eyes light up. "What I like about 2010 is that it seems more approachable than the '08s were at this stage," he said. "In winemaking I pumped over the fermentations less and punched down less for minimal extraction. I tried to make it more about the beautiful fruit."
The Pinots accurately reflect their origins. The estate wine, from Dundee Hills, shows both red fruit and black currant flavors in a polished frame, while DeLancellotti, from Josh's brother-in-law's vineyard next to the winery in Chehalem Mountains, was all cherry and raspberry, with a ripe finish.
Bergström has also made impressive strides with its Chardonnays, now its only white after phasing out both Riesling and Pinot Gris. The wines have vivacity and a nice mineral slant to the fruit flavors. Tasted from tank pre-bottling, Old Stones, the Willamette Valley blend named for the 20 million-year-old soils that lie under the top layers, actually shows more minerality in 2010 to go along with its green plum and citrus fruit than does Sigrid, a softer, more plush style.
Argyle, which makes both sparkling and still wines with equal success, responded to the cool vintages of 2007 and 2010 (and 2011, most likely) by shifting more of its grapes into sparkling wines. These benefit from lower sugar levels in the grapes, producing less alcohol and more finesse and, in a climate like Oregon's, still achieved fully ripe flavors. I have always wondered why other Oregon wineries did not follow this model, which finds a home for grapes that are too tart for good table wine but perfect for fizz.
"We can move with Mother Nature," said Rollin Soles, who has managed the winery since it was founded n 1987. "The swing blocks went into Pinot in 2010. We got ripe fruit with high acidity. Quite often in the New World you have to have unripe fruit to get enough acidity."
The 2010 Argyle wines I tasted showed more transparency and less flesh than usual, even a few herbal flavors here and there. But the one element that ran through all of them was pretty fruit, often tending toward red. "There was plenty o' pretty in 2010," Soles laughed, who noted that the alcohols mostly ranged from 12.5 to 13.
Those who like a rich, ripe style of Pinot Noir, by all accounts the majority of wine drinkers, may discover in the Oregon 2010s that lightness is a virtue, because the wines also display fully formed flavors and don't fade on the finish. Champions of low-alcohol Pinot Noirs are going to love the light, graceful structures, holding the 2010s up as examples of what Pinot Noir should be in the New World.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature is not going to deal this kind of a hand very often. At least growers and vintners who must make a living from their wines hope not.
Greg Malcolm — St. Louis, Missouri — October 17, 2011 9:47pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — October 18, 2011 10:33am ET
Guy Brouillette — Boulder, CO — October 20, 2011 5:01pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 20, 2011 5:45pm ET
Scott Robbins — Alabama — April 14, 2012 9:55pm ET
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