In late September, Oregon vintners bit their nails nervously as rain approached to dump on their not-yet-ripe grapes. At that moment 2008 looked like a disaster in the making. The late, cool growing season could wash away with the deluge.
As it turned out, however, only some light rains came, albeit a whole week of them. When the sun came out on October 7, the rains stayed away for 22 days, long enough to get everything ripe, and without excessive heat. Was the vintage saved?
The proof, of course, lies in the wines themselves. Last week I visited several Willamette Valley winemakers who get their Pinot Noir grapes from a variety of sub-regions. Tasted from the barrel, the wines are promising. This may be Oregon’s best vintage yet.
The wines are not super-ripe, nor are their structures particularly imposing. But what I tasted had everything in virtually perfect balance. Alcohol levels came in lower than what we have become accustomed to, which is good, and the cool summer preserved that smack of acidity that makes the wines refreshing.
The result, to my palate, is a classic Oregon vintage. It has ripe flavors without high alcohol, ripe tannins so the textures are fine, and an open feel to the structure that puts nothing in the way between us and the wines. The wines have finesse.
Unlike the heat that followed the early-harvest rains in 2006 and produced big, sensuous wines, or the early heat in 2007 that got the grapes almost ripe before the rains hit and diluted the vintage, temperatures never rose much above 90°F. all year. After the rains, daytime temps seldom topped 80.
“You can talk to folks who lived here for 70, 80 years. They never saw in their lifetime a nicer fall,” said Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars.
Here's more from Ken:
"We were worried that we were not going to ripen the fruit,” said David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyards. “On September 20 or so I don’t think anybody would say we would be tasting (anything) that went to black fruit.”
Where ’06 leaned toward currant, plum and blackberry flavors and ’07 toward raspberry, strawberry and cherry, ’08 seems to have ‘em all. In cellar after cellar I tasted fresh, juicy flavors across the spectrum. It is a ripe vintage without high alcohol levels, the result of all that sunshine without heat.
“The wines are riper than any of us gave them credit for at first,” added Dave Paige, Adelsheim’s winemaker. “We waited and waited to get the grapes ripe.”
At Adelsheim I tasted barrel after barrel with silky textures, vibrant acidity and streaks of minerality, all good things for Pinot Noir if you want finesse. At Rex Hill, the wines showed a bit more density than recent vintages there, but without added weight, just more presence and harmony. At Ken Wright, I was struck by the clarity and purity of the complex fruit flavors. Some of the wines showed a bit more tannin than usual, but there’s time for that to settle in the barrel.
The vintners I saw compared the vintage to 1999, which was an excellent one and has proven to be long-lived.
“The last classic good vintage in Oregon was ’99,” Adelsheim asserted. “It had a smallish crop and a cooler growing season like this was. Nine years later we better understand what we’re doing, and that plays into a higher level of wine. I think ‘08 will age in a way you can’t always count on.”
The first of the ’08 whites will be arriving in the next few months, the reds to follow in the winter and next spring. If the wines emerge in the bottle as they are showing in the barrel, this will be the vintage Oregon vintners can point to and say, “See what we can do?”