Most of the Oregon Pinot Noirs out now are 2013s, a wet year. This usually means proceed with extreme caution. Not this time. Blind-tasting for review, I am finding ripe flavors, sleek textures and a spaciousness that comes from low alcohol levels. They deliver much more charm and grace than did 2011, a wet vintage in which only the best producers made flavorful wines without tough tannins.
Mother Nature made the difference. In 2011, the rains came after a cold summer in Willamette Valley, whence all of the best Pinots come. Well-situated vineyards could get relatively ripe flavors, but the parts of the grapes that make wines tannic seemed to work overtime.
In contrast, 2013's warm, dry summer accumulated even more heat than the great 2012 vintage, and the crop was extra-large. The rains came just as the grapes neared ideal ripeness, and lasted for 10 days. Grapes that escaped mold were diluted by rain and high yields. This kept alcohol levels comparable to 2011's, many in the low 13s and high 12s, but with ripe flavors due to the warm summer. It takes more than low alcohol to make a charming wine.
Both vintages required serious work on the sorting line to ferret out nasty molds. But the rewards in 2013 were greater. Maybe they won't last as long as the 2012s, a vintage that's notably ageworthy, but they are, for the most part, fun to drink.
Both 2014 and 2015 were dry vintages. But '14 was picked under sunny skies and high temperatures. Oregon winemakers learned from hot vintages like 2003, 2006 and 2009 to manage vine canopies to keep the sun off the grapes and get less shriveling. Some learned how to "water back," replacing moisture sucked from the grapes by the east wind with water from a hose. In the wineries I visited recently, I tasted 2014s of richness and ripeness, but not the extra weight that comes from very high alcohols, dense concentrations or big tannins. This could be a surprisingly fine vintage.
In 2015, the earliest on record for many wineries, rainstorms rolled through at the end of August, moistened the parched, drought-hit soils, and refreshed the vines well before they neared ripeness. September was among the coolest on record. Vintners could pick at whatever they considered to be optimum ripeness.
By the time I got to Oregon on Oct. 4, the wineries were done picking. Barrels were being filled, nearly a month earlier than usual. I tasted ripe flavors, modest tannins and, yes, real potential for finesse.
There's no precedent for a vintage exactly like this in Oregon, but there is in Burgundy. Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères did some research and found a description of the 1959 Côte d'Or growing season in a book by Clive Coates that matches uncannily: early flowering, warm, dry, with late-August rains, a cool September and early harvest. Those Burgundies were magnificent and long-lived. If Oregon's 2015 turns out as well, it could be the state's most extraordinary vintage.