Jason Lett has been working on a project, tasting through every single bottle of Eyrie Vineyard’s library wines, then recorking them. The collection represents one of the true treasures of American Pinot Noir, hundreds of bottles that testify to the longevity and quality possible in Oregon.
When he has time, Lett opens eight cases of a vintage to recork. It takes about half a day and most of the time 90 percent of the bottles are just fine. Sometimes, he said, “only half will be correct for the vintage,” an experience that has led him to reseal the bottles with a cork alternative called Diam, a conglomerate cork that promises zero cork taint.
Jason’s father, David Lett, one of Oregon’s earliest pioneers, founded Eyrie in 1966, and made the wine that called the world’s attention to what was happening with Pinot Noir in Oregon—Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir Oregon South Block 1975, from a portion of the estate vineyard in what is now known as the Dundee Hills AVA.
Though it did not win the top prize, it finished in the top 10 of the Gault-Millau Wine Olympics, a multiday tasting staged in Paris in 1979. A long list of well-known Burgundies ranked behind it. That caught the attention of Burgundy négociant Robert Drouhin, who repeated the tasting for himself the following year and got a similar result. Eight years later, Drouhin was in the Oregon wine business, an important moment of validation in the history of American Pinot Noir.
All the while the elder Lett continued to make Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in the same delicate, whispery style that so charmed the international tasters in France, even as more Oregon Pinot Noir vintners aimed for greater richness and power. Eyrie’s wines of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s could seem thin in comparison, but Lett stood his ground. The wines aged beautifully.
On a recent visit to the Eyrie winery, housed in an old poultry plant in McMinnville, Ore., Jason opened some of those bottles for me and we talked about the direction he sees for Eyrie since his father died in 2008. He does have his own ideas. In particular he likes significantly more of a tannic backbone in his wines than his father did. He also is willing to risk natural yeast fermentations, which his father never wanted. In short, he wants a little more going on in the wines, even as they stand their ground at the light end of the style spectrum.
Jason took responsibility for the winemaking in 2005. “When Dad handed the keys over to me,” he shrugged, “he had to bite his tongue over it.” Jason insisted that Dad continue to make the South Block bottling. “He decided when to pick and chose the barrels, and we fermented the wine according to his protocol,” Lett said. “He finished blending the 2007 a week before he passed.” That was also the last South Block.
The highlight of our tasting came with a comparison of that 2007 with South Block 1993. The 2007 showed a hint of animal aromatics in the nose and the mouth, but sweet fruit flavors and silky texture supplied a balance. It is light and refined, with red berry, a hint of prosciutto and finely integrated tannins. The 1993 has matured into a supple, rich wine, surprisingly so, as it felt quite light when it was young. Black tea, peppery spice, dark fruit and roasted meat flavors persist into the long and expressive finish.
“South Block epitomizes what he wanted to do,” Lett added, “wines that were light and elegant.”
A fascinating prelude to that pairing was a run through some of Jason’s own wines, BlackCap, which he started in 2002. “Back when my dad and I were not trying to make soup in the same kitchen, I started this label and made the wines at another facility. Now the BlackCap wines are made here at Eyrie.”
Lett uses the brand to experiment with purchased grapes. “It’s a test bed for techniques, different size fermentors, post-fermentation soaks. This is where I got into indigenous fermentations.” By that he means using the natural yeasts adhering to the grapes rather than inoculating with Champagne yeasts, as his father did. He started to apply the idea to Eyrie Pinot Noirs in 2008 with 20 percent native yeasts. He went to 50 percent in 2009 and 100 percent in 2010.
“I believe that natural yeasts,” he said, “and things like whole-cluster fermentations at sub-threshold levels can bring an edge of excitement to the wine. It can lift the hairs on the back of your neck when you smell it. And it comes from the vineyard, not from the cooper. I like oak, but it can be overdone.”
The effects are easy to see in the Pinot Noir Estate 2009. In a hot vintage, when others could produce thick, weighty wines, Eyrie’s tastes light on the palate and effusively fragrant. The alcohol level is close to 14 percent, but you don’t feel it. The 2010, with 100 percent natural yeasts, shows a tangy wild berry character, lovely transparency, finishing with dark fruit and black tea flavors.
Those wines don’t show evidence of Jason’s preference for more tannins, but the 2005 through 2008 certainly do. With a sweetness to the dark berry fruit, the finish on 2005 has a light grip to it. 2006 has more richness, and more tannins, with a white chocolate or caramel note on the finish. Crisp, both in acidity and tannins, the 2007 remains light and vibrant, with rose petal accents. Many 2007s show green flavors, but not this one.
“I’ll take a vintage like ’07 every year,” Lett said. “Mother Nature dictated when picking would happen. We’d have a day of light rain and two or three days of cool and dry. We weren’t being goaded and ripped by spikes of ripening, so we could pick each block when it was perfect. And we got an extra two weeks of ripening time.”
Although David avoided extracting too much tannins, Jason encouraged it with whole-cluster fermentations, inclusion of stems, and post-fermentation macerations. “It has to be the right kind of tannins,” he added. “I’m looking for tannins that are a savory accompaniment to the fruit on the palate. I don’t look at the tannins as something to preserve the wine, but to accompany the wine in the present. The wine’s structure remains with acidity.”
There were two other pairs to taste: Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
The Pinot Gris 2010, rich in texture, shows lovely pear and spice flavors. The 1989 veers to a strongly toasty character, polished, still lively and vibrant, a lot less fruit, of course, but with complex tobacco accents.
“Cellaring these old PInot Gris is the result of a father-son argument, which I lost,” Jason noted. “I kept asking Dad, why are we librarying PInot Gris?” He nodded at the bottles. “These are the answers.”
The Chardonnay pairing compared the 1973 Oregon Chardonnay with the 2010 Original Vines Reserve, made from the same vineyard. The 2010, silky, with pretty pear and floral flavors, lingers nicely on the finish. With an amazingly light color, 1973 shows definite mineral notes on the nose, with lanolin and lime blossoms, delicacy and length, a slight undertone of bitterness taking it down. Non-blind, I rated both wines 88 points for sheer quality, but the 1973 gets a 95 for the experience.
That’s how it goes with older wines. And Jason Lett is doing the right thing to preserve the library.
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