Oregon's Big Pinot Noir
By Harvey Steiman, editor at large
From its very first commercial vintage, in 1991, Beaux Freres has stood at or near the front of the pack of Oregon Pinot Noir producers. It makes a controversial wine. Those who profess to prefer delicacy in their Pinot Noirs knock it for being too big and rich. Those who value intensity of flavor love it. I tend to fall into the latter camp; I've rated the wine in the low 90s in most vintages.
I have a few of the older vintages left in my cellar, but I've never actually sat down to try them all, year by year. On a visit to Oregon recently, I managed to back into a complete vertical tasting of Beaux Freres Pinot Noirs. I say that because neither Michael Etzel, who makes the wine, nor I planned it that way. It just sort of happened. Both the way it happened and the way the wines showed on a rainy February afternoon say a good deal about Oregon and its Pinot Noirs.
First, the way it happened. I had planned to visit Beaux Freres right after lunch to taste the 1998 vintage out of the barrel. Lunch was at WillaKenzie Estate, in Yamhill County, southwest of Portland and about a five-minute drive from Etzel's place. WillaKenzie's winemaker, Laurent Montalieu, asked me if I wanted to invite anyone else to join us for lunch. I mentioned that Beaux Freres was going to be my next stop after lunch, and he suggested inviting Etzel.
There are not very many places in the world where a winemaker would invite a rival to share lunch with a visiting journalist. Nor are there many places where the rival could show up with about 14 wines from several recent vintages, including his and a few other Pinot Noir producers', and still be welcome.
Laurent and co-owner Ronni LaCroute cooked up a lovely lunch, and everyone appeared to have a great time sampling Pinot Noirs from 1995, 1996 and 1997 -- three vintages that were difficult in Oregon because they were affected by rain. Actually Laurent and LaCroute had little to worry about. Their wines showed beautifully. What was fascinating to me was the range of opinions around the table about the vintages. Everyone seemed to prefer a different wine.
The three Beaux Freres wines got the vertical started. Having tasted them, we drove to the winery to sample the 1998 vintage out of barrel, after which Etzel wondered if there were any older vintages I would like to try. On each previous visit, he has offered to open older wines. Most of the time I beg off, having tasted the wines relatively recently in the Wine Spectator tasting room. But this time I accepted.
Like the conversation at lunch, opinion at every winery I had visited so far was all over the map on the 1995, 1996 and 1997 vintages. Everyone in Oregon was comparing 1998 to 1994, usually with some dour comment about how atypical the 1994 vintage had become. Etzel himself had just said, "Many people like our 1994, but if you talk to them, they're Bordeaux lovers. The Burgundy nuts don't like it as much."
That did it. I wondered if Etzel, a quiet man, were making a veiled reference to his brother-in-law and partner in the winery, the wine critic Robert Parker, who made his reputation on his expertise in Bordeaux. In any event, I had to taste the 1994 in context of these other vintages.
He ran upstairs, disappeared into a storeroom and emerged with a bottle of 1994 wrapped in tissue paper. He got it open and poured some into a tasting glass. The wine was intense, showing ripe flavors of berry, currant and plum shaded with hints of something spicy and exotic that reminded me of leather gloves, with root beer on the finish. The wine was smooth and opulent, by no means delicate but not heavy either, with impressive length.
"Yeah, but the 1993 is so much more Pinot Noir," he said, and disappeared upstairs again. He returned with bottles of 1993 and 1992. I liked the '93. It was a more complete wine than the '94, with harmonious flavors, but it had scratchy tannins to lose, where the '94 was so smooth and silky. The '92, on the other hand, had the velvet and the silk, with the intensity to echo all sorts of exotic spice and licorice flavors around the still-vibrant core of black cherry fruit. It also had a gamy edge. "I have to tell you, I prefer the '92," I said. Etzel said 1993 was his favorite vintage.
At lunch, I found the 1995 very firm and focused, a beautifully structured wine with solid fruit character and anise overtones. I did not much care for the 1996, which was going through a very tannic stage, but the 1997 had the supple texture and pretty flavors to charm the pants off of a troll. It was also generous of flavor and had impressive length.
Etzel liked the 1996, and when he tasted the 1993 he said it reminded him of the 1996. They were the two most tannic wines in the bunch.
Puzzled by how someone who preferred delicacy could like so much tannin, I figured it had to be because the wines would age better. I wondered aloud, "What's going to happen to these wines as they age?" That sent Etzel back up the stairs. He returned with two more bottles--1991, the first commercial vintage (only 50 cases made), and 1990. "We never sold the 1990," he said. "We only made it for our own use."
The 1991 was holding up nicely. It was fully formed, focused and dripping with extra spices and smoke. It was a subtle wine and felt round in texture. When it was first out, in 1993, I called it "remarkably complex and concentrated" and suggested aging it only until 1997. At the time, the Pinot Noir nuts damned it as too big, too jammy. It was nothing of the kind, and the wine had aged into a beauty.
The 1990 was a revelation, the first wine of the day in which fully mature aromas dominated. It was delicate, graceful, still showing a core of plum and currant fruit, with hints of cinnamon and smoke and a touch of poached prune on the finish. It was the wine I most would have liked to drink with dinner.
Later, pondering the differences in our preferences, I realized that what occurred that chilly February afternoon was typical of Pinot Noir anywhere. The grape is so sensitive to climate and weather that it magnifies differences in vintage. For me, the best Oregon Pinot Noirs from 1994 and 1992, including Beaux Freres, are not big, heavy-handed wines at all. The best have developed into silky wines with both richness and delicacy. A wine can have both attributes, in the same way a lightweight fleece shirt feels luxurious but almost weightless.
In a place like Oregon, where so many vintages are affected adversely by weather, vintages such as 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997 are more typical because they are compromised by rain. Ultraripe vintages like 1994 and 1992 can seem too "loud" to those who are accustomed to drinking those less-intense wines.
So take what you hear and read about Pinot Noir with a grain of salt. As always, you must taste them for yourself to know for sure.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from editor at large Harvey Steiman. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions