After a week in Willamette Valley tasting Oregon’s 2010 and 2011 Pinot Noirs, I am impressed. If delicacy is what you crave, these vintages provided the framework for it. If you love rich wines and think delicate Pinot Noirs can’t have ripe flavors, these vintages might persuade you otherwise.
My enthusiasm comes with a couple of caveats, however. One is the weather, which posed serious challenges in both vintages. Unlike 2008, when making exceptional wine was pretty much a no-brainer, negotiating the cool, rainy conditions of 2010 and 2011 required skills that only those who had experienced them before could muster. As a result, you can’t just pluck a bottle off the shelf. A significant percentage of producers missed. Some missed by a wide margin.
The other caveat is the style. Those who prefer a rich, opulent mouthfeel might wonder what all the fuss is about when these light feathers float across their palates. Alcohols average in the low 13s in 2010, even lower in 2011.
With these low to moderate levels of alcohol, both vintages share a certain transparency. Here I’m not talking about color. Actually, the colors in the better wines are pretty much normal. It’s that, in the best wines, nothing in the balance of elements gets in the way of letting those lovely flavors float forth, and the finishes linger, a sign that the wines can age.
In cellar after cellar (plus the 65 or so finished 2010s I have tasted blind for review), I am finding flavors that we usually associate with riper, more opulent vintages. The 2011s are showing dark fruit character, surprising for a summer that was Oregon’s coldest on record and a harvest season that was soaked repeatedly with rain. The silver lining was that the grapes that could hang through the latest vintage in Oregon's history attained fully ripe flavors. The 2010s show more red fruit, and they seem to be gaining some richer textures in the bottle.
That said, let’s not jump to the conclusion that 2010 and 2011 are great vintages. Too many challenges for that. Those who reacted to the coming rains to pick early could get green, unripe flavors, and those who waited too long could find themselves dealing with mold and mush. But in the end, there are more good to excellent wines than anyone expected when the rain was falling and winemakers were shivering in their cellars.
More significant, the wines that did prevail will have characteristics that only Pinot Noir can achieve: that transparency, that depth of flavor, that delicacy. That’s something to treasure.
I have been asking those who have released their 2010s what kind of response they are getting in the marketplace. Universally, they say, “the somms love them.” Of course they do. The sommelier fraternity has been on the warpath against higher alcohol levels and seeing 12.7 percent or 13.2 percent on a label completes their dreams.
On the other hand, the wines that sell best are generally those with more richness and lavish texture. The question in my mind is how consumers will respond to these lighter wines. The jury is still out on that one.
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — June 11, 2012 4:59pm ET
Peter Hickner — Seattle, WA — June 19, 2012 3:16pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 19, 2012 4:16pm ET
Greg Malcolm — St. Louis, Missouri — June 19, 2012 11:05pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions