How much should we have to pay for good, varietally correct Pinot Noir, a wine with the requisite refinement and stylishness that does not sacrifice flavor and intensity?
Four wineries in Oregon that manage to crank out thousands of cases of Pinot Noir at $20 or less revealed secrets of the trade at the recent Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in Portland. Revelations from the winemakers will probably appall the natural wine crowd, but I will take the results in the glass. These wines routinely score in the 86 to 90 point range.
I checked Wine Spectator ratings on all Pinot Noirs tasted over the past year priced at $20 or less. I found more than 25 that scored at least 88 points. Most of the tasting notes for those wines describe light, fragrant wines with a sense of elegance. They manage to convey the essence of Pinot Noir, sometimes better than wines that cost considerably more.
Oregon dominates that list, followed by Chile, New Zealand, Australia and California. Amazingly, five 2009 wines scored 90 points at a $20 price point—A to Z and J. Daan from Oregon, Wairau River and Momo from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, and Veramonte from the Casablanca Valley of Chile.
How do the Oregon guys do it? They break the rules, or at least they question some practices that Pinot Noir aficionados might think necessary for decent wine. For these wines, they let yields exceed the sacrosanct range of 2 to 2.5 tons per acre. Vineyards for these wines may not be lovingly pruned and harvested by hand, fermented in small containers and aged in a lot of oak barrels. Some use micro-oxygenation and oak chips to get the texture and flavor that fancier wines get from barrel aging.
The winemakers on the panel represented A to Z, Erath, Kings Ridge and the 12th and Maple Wine Company (a custom-crush facility that is starting to develop its own vineyards and a wine brand). In my own tastings, these wineries have a pretty good track record for remarkable value. Do the wines have the depth and specificity of terroir of the best wines? Of course not. Are these wines welcome companions at a midweek dinner? You bet. They do not taste manipulated or industrial. They are the Oregon parallel to Burgundy's Bourgogne Rouge. Only, for the most part, considerably better.
"To make a Pinot Noir at $20 or less we have to challenge conventional wisdom," said New Zealander Michael Davies, winemaker for A to Z. The challenge, he added, is not to go too far, to keep yields just tight enough to deliver some fruit intensity. A to Z buys grapes from less-celebrated vineyards, and manages winemaking additions so they aren't so noticeable.
A to Z started in 2001 when William Hatcher, who had been managing Domaine Drouhin, partnered with husband-and-wife winemakers Sam Tannahill and Cheryl Francis to take advantage of that abundant vintage. "It was a classic French négoçiant model," said Davies, in which the vintner blends surplus grapes and wines into something that can be more than the sum of its parts.
It is also, Davies admitted, a low-margin business. "Our cost of fruit [for A to Z] is 51 percent," he said. (For most wineries, it's closer to 20 percent.) "We have to sell a lot of cases to make it profitable." And they do. A to Z bottled 79,000 cases of its most recent vintage, 2009, an unheard-of volume for a 90-point Pinot Noir.
The A to Z blend also benefits from whatever grapes and wine lots sister winery Rex Hill (which sells its basic Pinots for $33) selects out. When A to Z bought Rex Hill in 2007, production was cut by nearly three-fourths to emphasize only the best portions of the vineyards. The rest can go into A to Z to add depth to the blend.
A to Z also pays less than Willamette Valley prices for grapes from Southern Oregon and Columbia Gorge, which can add complexity in a lighter style.
Erath, now owned by Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, uses a similar model to make its Oregon-appellation Pinot Noir blend, the most recent vintage, 2009, hitting 135,000 cases. It also sells for $20, and I rated it 88 points.
"Dick Erath was a pioneer on low-cost Pinot Noir," said Gary Horner, who was retained as winemaker after the winery sale. "In the 1980s we were selling the wine for under $10. It is designed to be soft and approachable, consistent, economical." The Oregon bottling blends in lots culled out of Erath's many single-vineyard wines from its own vineyards, adding depth to the grapes purchased from around the state.
The wines also undergo different winemaking processes. "We use air pulses for cap management, instead of punching down, which would be more more labor intensive," Horner said. "We also save on the cost of barrels by aging the wine in tanks with wood chips, with a little micro-oxygenation to mimic the effect of air in the barrel. That alone can save $10 a case on our cost."
Although the 12th and Maple winery is best known in Oregon for making wines for producers that don't have their own facilities, the owners, Winemakers Investment Properties LLC, also farm 650 acres of vineyards in Willamette Valley. The custom crush facility was built to generate cash flow while the vineyards mature, said winemaker Ken Johnston.
Johnston and his vineyard crew have been testing how far they can push the vineyard and still produce wineworthy grapes. "We are more interested in pounds per vine than total yield in the vineyard," he said. "We can get 3 to 6 tons per acre. We also do a lot of things that would be considered wrong for Pinot Noir, such as spur pruning (instead of cane pruning), mechanized leaf removal, and multiple-row mechanization."
Automation has at least one advantage: Grapes go from the vine to the fermentor in 30 minutes, much faster than the half-day it can take hand-picked grapes. Johnston delivered a load of machine-harvested, high-yield Pinot Noir to Soter Vineyards in 2011.
Tony Soter was quick to point out that he had no intention of moving away from hand harvesting Pinot Noir for his Soter or North Valley labels. But he was delighted with the grapes Johnston delivered for his Planet Oregon project, a Pinot Noir from sustainably grown grapes made to sell for $20 to $22.
"The results are conclusive," he said. "No negative impacts. On the contrary, given that the harvester effectively destems grapes from the vine better than any commonly used winery destemmer, the benefits are apparent in more intact fruit with fewer burst berries that expose unwanted seeds and can cause bitterness. The resulting wines are more supple, and less coarse. It is a net positive quality benefit."
Food for thought, that.