After tasting through more than a dozen leading Oregon wineries' 2006 Pinot Noirs last week, including some of the best in the state, I predict consumers will love them. The producers are of two minds. They know the wines will please many wine drinkers, but they regret the high alcohols inherent in the vintage.
"I call it a California year," says Rollin Soles of Argyle, "because the guys driving the forklift got a sunburn."
"This was a California vintage in Oregon," echoes Mo Ayoub, whose wine from his four-acre vineyard in Dundee Hills has become something of a cult favorite. "But it's the kind of Pinot Noir consumers want to drink."
What made it so? When I was there in late September 2006, rain was falling. Not much, but it came just as the grapes were getting ripe. Those who waited out several days of rain, and that includes most of the top guns, enjoyed a long, extended Indian summer. High pressure settled in over the eastern part of the state, turning the prevailing winds around. Usually, they blow in from off the coast, bringing cool sea air. In October, they came from the hot, dry interior.
"It was like the blow dryer turned on," laughs Josh Bergström. "The grapes dried up, and there was no rot."
"In fact, the grapes started to shrivel a little," adds Ken Wright, who makes wine from a wide range of sub-regions. "They got ripe, but they also came in at 27 or 28 (degrees brix)." That converts to more than 15 percent alcohol. Both 2004 and 2005 averaged less than 14 for the better wines.
And that's why they're calling it a California vintage. But, surprisingly, the flavors are not overripe and do not taste of dried fruit, which is what you might expect. In cellar after cellar, tasting just-bottled wines and some that were still in barrel, I found uniformly fresh fruit flavors. Despite high alcohols, the wines tasted balanced and integrated, and the flavors tended toward the raspberry end of the spectrum, with less plum and blackberry than usual.
The reason may be the size of the crop, Oregon's largest ever.
"If the mantra is one cluster per shoot," adds Soles, "and you expected two tons per acre, in 2006 you easily could have got three or four times that." Most of the top producers go through and strip bunches off the vines at various points during the summer, hoping to bring the vines back into normal yield ranges that will ripen properly.
More than a few winemakers say that they added water to the fermenters in 2006. Technically illegal, it clearly made better wine by bringing the alcohols into balance.
"The high alcohol was because the grapes had dehydrated, not because they had developed too much sugar on their own," explains one highly respected vigneron. "All we did was add back what had evaporated."
The results are praiseworthy. While not showing quite the finesse and elegance of the best of 2004 and 2005, two relatively cool and slightly wet vintages, at this point 2006s from the best producers show smooth tannins, fresh fruit flavors and great presence for early drinking.
You can taste it in some of the early releases, already on the shelves. Among mostly regional Pinot Noir blends, relatively delicate-tasting crowd pleasers include A to Z, O'Reilly's, Belle Vallée and Erath, all under $20. The few high-end wines already out include Sineann's entire range, which demonstrate the pleasure of the vintage well.