I tasted some older wines while in Oregon last week, visiting winemakers in Willamette Valley. What strikes me, looking over my notes, is how consistently good they all were. Of course, what vintner would show a bad wine to a visiting journalist?
The greatest number of bottles showed up at dinner with David Millman, general manager of Domaine Drouhin, and Tony Rynders, winemaker at Domaine Serene. We drank the wines with several courses at The Painted Lady, the new restaurant in Newberg that has quickly established itself as the most ambitious in Oregon wine country.
The highlight was a faceoff between Domaine Drouhin 1991's special bottling for the ¡Salud! benefit auction and Domaine Serene's 1992 Pinot Noir, an early vintage made by Ken Wright. The Drouhin won this round, a silky, supple, subtle wine with smoky distinctiveness. The 1992 hadn't lost the firm texture it had early on (when I rated it 89 points), and its exuberant fruit had narrowed quite a bit. It still had some delicacy.
The other pairing compared 1998s, DDO's Laurène bottling (which I had rated 93 points) and DS's Grace Vineyard (92). The wines smelled almost identical, centering on gorgeous blackberry and earthy spice. (Not too surprising, as the vineyards are across the road from each other.) Laurène was less dramatic than it was in its youth, but had matured into an elegant Pinot with impressive balance and complexity on its long, firm-textured finish. The Grace seemed to have held its youth better, with a wonderful silky texture that remained refined through the polished finish.
For the record, all those wines tasted just fine with my grilled halibut over mashed potatoes garnished with fried green tomatoes. Red wine with fish. I do it all the time.
We also drank Domaine Serene's Chardonnay Côte Sud 2000. It had amazing freshness to the citrusy pear flavors, finishing with a creamy texture against a nice zing of acidity. This surprised me, because my review of the wine in 2003 referred to earthy, menthol flavors. So many Oregon Chardonnays were so funky in those days, I didn't give the wine the extra chance it deserved. It turned out to be a beauty. (Still, the Coeur Blanc 2004, Serene's new barrel-fermented white Pinot Noir, was even better with the halibut.)
One reason I like visiting Michael Etzel is that he always asks if there are any older wines from his Beaux Frères winery I might want to try. He is game to pull the cork on anything. So, when he offered before a casual lunch of grilled chicken and salad, I asked to try "one of the tough vintages—i.e., 1995, 1996 or 1997."
Those were the last rain-affected vintages in Oregon until the recent run starting in 2004. The 1997s just came out lighter than usual, but both 1995 and 1996 had their problems with rot and other unpleasantness. Etzel brought out bottles of 1995 and 1996. I recalled that Beaux Frères did pretty well in both years, although the wines lacked the drama of the best vintages.
I remembered the 1995 as a pretty wine then (91 points, according to our database). Today it is still lithe and spicy, with lovely fruit character that reminded me of guava and strawberries. The 1996 had a bit of a bite to it then (90 points), and it shows more tannin than the '95 today, but the raspberry and spice flavors come through beautifully. Both were lovely. Alongside the teriyaki-marinated chicken, both wines worked just fine.
At Penner-Ash, Rob and Lynn Penner-Ash poured some of their first vintage, 1999. It has retained its silky texture and picked up a layer of wildflower character over its raspberry flavors, finishing elegant. My original notes (92 points) describe "a limpid style that plays out its raspberry and currant flavors gracefully." I'd say the wine is at it best now, and it was perfect with mushroom lasagne.
At Bethel Heights, the Casteel family poured the 2002 Casteel Reserve (rated 92 points when tasted in 2004). This supple wine has real presence and is just coming into its own, showing pomegranate and plum flavors against fine tannins and a zippy finish. My original note suggested that the wine was almost Syrah-like, but it has softened into real Pinot elegance, a perfect foil for chicken and green bean salad.
Finally, Josh Bergström opened a bottle of his 1999 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, his first wine, over dinner at the Dundee Bistro. In my original note (91 points) I said the wine was Syrah-like. Today, it's the epitome of finesse, having slimmed down enough to fit into a slinky frame. The fruit is still there, but the style has refined even further.
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — September 26, 2006 1:57pm ET
John Guinasso — Portland Oregon — September 26, 2006 10:59pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — September 26, 2006 11:30pm ET
John Guinasso — Portland Oregon — September 27, 2006 1:10pm ET
Dave Adams — Maple Grove, MN — November 13, 2006 11:45pm ET
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