"It would be really nice," said Josh Bergström of Oregon's Bergström Wines, "if we could have a normal vintage again."
When was the last time you had one of those? I asked. "Well," he responded, "maybe someday."
The most recent vintages have tested the mettle of the state's vintners. This one, 2011, has everyone waiting on tenterhooks. It looks to be one of the latest on record. Most vineyards won't start picking until Oct. 15, two to three weeks later than usual. Vintners have one eye on the sky, hoping there won't be too much rain before the grapes are picked.
Last year was another cold growing season, but bad weather at flowering reduced the size of the crop significantly. Considerable bird damage further limited the volume of wine most wineries could make. Generally, smaller crops ripen quicker, and despite what seemed like an unending series of rain showers in late September and early October 2010, flavors actually came out just fine. (I will have more on all that next week, after I digest all the 2010 tasting notes I compiled this week visiting 15 cellars in Willamette Valley.)
A moderate growing season in 2009 produced a large crop, but it looked to be in peril when rains started in late September again. And then the weather turned warm, everything got ripe at once, and the challenge was to get everything in before the grapes turned to raisins.
Even the fabled 2008 made everyone nervous until a balmy October saved the day and produced what some, including me, believe are Oregon's greatest Pinot Noirs. In that year, after a cooler-than-usual summer, rain started to fall in late September and early October. But then the sun came out, temperatures stayed in the 70s for most of October, and most picked at their leisure.
That one followed a 2007 cycle that was the flip side of '08—a beautiful, warm summer that turned wet and cold just as the grapes were ripening, diluting flavors. Before that came a series of hot summers. Both 2003 and 2006 finished under hot, sunny skies, resulting in big, rich, sometimes overripe wines. Rain fell while the grapes were picked in 2004 and 2005, resulting in much better, balanced wines.
See a pattern there? I don't either. Oregon vintners say that their vintages are as varied as Burgundy's, and in my view they are right. And that is why it's so important for those who love Pinot Noir to suss out the vintners who make wines that fit your taste. Especially seek the ones who can do it reliably. They know how to reflect these vintage differences without losing the style and personality that distinguish them.
It's becoming clear to some winemakers that the kind of rains Oregon experiences may, under the right circumstances, actually help. It certainly has not completely ruined a vintage since 1984.
"What I've learned," said Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent, "is that the problem with rain is not the wetness. It's that it's not sunny." Without direct sunlight, photosynthesis slows to a crawl and grapes don't get nearly as sweet. "Ripening still moves forward, seeds turn brown, the pulp separates from the skins, it even can adds a little more sugar—all the physiological signs we look for before picking. But it's what I call banana ripening, like what happens to a green banana on your window sill." In other words, flavors develop, but maybe without the same kind of richness.
And with Pinot Noir, that might be a good thing, if what you want is transparency, lightness, deft balance, and fresh fruit flavors that don't skew into the dark and plush range. A little rain at harvest can keep the flavors fresh and the sugars low enough to produce minimal alcohol. Just like Burgundy.