Pinot Noir producers wrestle with the idea of terroir, that French-inspired notion that place makes the wine, and none more so than those who run into confounding evidence that maybe it's not always the end-all and be-all of wine.
I have long believed that single vineyards make the most distinctive wines, wines with the most personality, but not necessarily the best wines. Very often a blend of two or more excellent sites can fill in the pieces missing in one or the other, and the result can be better than either one alone. In other words, single vineyards make great wines only in those rare sites that produce complete, balanced wines.
When the stars align, magic happens. When they don't, is it better to let the vineyard express itself, warts and all, or try to make the best wine you can?
Ken Wright is the classic terroir-iste. He championed the new series of sub-appellations in the northern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Although most vignerons make a regional blend, even in Burgundy, the nexus of terroir culture, Wright does not. His Pinot Noirs carry the specific vineyard name where the grapes grow to make the wine. He long ago dropped the idea of a Willamette Valley blend, and every single Ken Wright Pinot Noir carries a vineyard designation. Until Angela.
In 2005, a crunch in the winery forced his cellar crew to put grapes from two different vineyards into the same vat. The result was a wine that everyone liked, but left Wright with a problem. Should he compromise his principles and bottle it? In the end, he did, and I tasted it blind when I reviewed Wright's other 2005s. Darned if it didn't tie for my highest rating.
I had never seen "Angela" on a Ken Wright wine before. I suspected that it was a new vineyard for him. The back label said nothing about the source, so I couldn't wait to ask him about it when I visited his winery last week. When I told him I liked the wine, he grimaced. "I was afraid of that," he sighed. "It was a logistical problem. Our intention is not to do it again."
Although Wright buys from independent growers in several of the sub-appellations he championed, the grapes for Angela came from two of Wright's own vineyards—Savoya, which is next to his house, and Abbott Claim, on a hill he shares with Tony Soter's Mineral Springs Vineyard. Savoya and Abbott Claim are the only vineyards the Wrights own. They're both in the Yamhill-Carlton District.
In my blind tasting notes, Wright's 2005 Savoya bottling is light and pretty, with fairly firm tannins. His Abbott Claim is a more seductive wine, plush in texture, but not at all heavy, redolent of black fruits and spices. Angela seems to have the best of both, with Savoya's lightness and open texture and Abbott Claim's expressiveness. Together, they make a more persistent finish.
It doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes the elements of one vineyard's wine fight with those of another, and the result is a lesser wine. But in this case, with these vineyards, in this vintage, the sum is greater than the parts.
"I really like the wine, too," Wright admits, but he adds, "I need that connection to a place. I can't compromise that."
Do I think Wright should discard his principles and start making blends? Absolutely not. By making wines from the same vineyards year after year, as he has done, he understands their strengths and weaknesses better with every vintage. His 2005s are, in my estimation, his best yet.
But Angela throws a spanner into the works, as they say in England. Would it be consistently as good in succeeding vintages? I have no idea. But I for one will want to taste it alongside Savoya and Abbott Claim over five or 10 years to see what wins in the end.
Maybe, just maybe, the best of all worlds would keep only those vineyards separate that make great wine on their own. The rest could go into a reserve-wine blend that just might be the best wine of them all, or at the very least, better than the vineyards that fall short on their own.