Ripeness in Oregon Pinot Noir

It really is about flavor, not alcohol
Nov 14, 2016

I've been reviewing a lot of Oregon Pinot Noirs, most of them from the 2013 and 2014 vintages. The differences between 2013 and 2014 touch upon a contentious topic with Pinot Noir: ripeness.

Summer temperatures soared in both vintages, but early fall made the difference. Generally, I'm finding a lot of light, pretty wines in 2013, more presence and generosity in 2014. But some of the best wines defy those characterizations. And, as we will discover, high alcohol is not a problem despite the heat, in either vintage.

Vintners are getting good enough to adjust their winemaking choices, encouraging more generosity in a supposedly light vintage, paring away the extra weight in a riper one, in search of wines with transparency.

I reviewed 2013s such as Formaglini Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains La Quercia Block, light on its feet but packed with blackberry, black olive and rose petal flavors, persisting against a meaty note. Another example: Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Slope Single Vineyard 2013, rich and expressive, with black cherry and pepper notes prominent against tangy mineral flavors.

On the other hand, Elk Cove got distinctly minerally character, with a saline quality to raspberry and cherry flavors, from its Goodrich VIneyard bottling in 2014, coming together harmoniously on a long, vivid finish. Ken Wright Cellars Guadalupe Vineyard 2014 is light and refined, lively red cherry and pomegranate flavors dancing deftly into a long and expressive finish.

It's not about picking earlier, says Ken Wright. "In cooler years you need to reduce the crop to lighten the vines' workload," he argues. "The only way to influence a warm season is to leave more crop on the vine to create more hang time. It can extend the season by two weeks."

Hang time lets grapes develop more flavor. A bigger crop allows the wines to get depth without raising alcohol levels, losing acidity and thickening the texture. The good news about 2014 is that the final days of ripening never got too hot. The grapes ripened slowly, and winemakers could pick for the style they wanted.

Leaving a larger crop in warm vintages, which many growers did in both vintages, flies in the face of what has become conventional wisdom in the Pinot Noir world, that low yields always make better wines. Not true, as those high-scoring wines prove.

Pinot Noir excites me when it achieves a harmony of tastes (acidity, sweetness, bitterness), structure (alcohol, tannins, transparency) and flavor qualities (intensity, fruit vs. savory). If any of those stick out, or are lacking, my rating drops a few points. A wine's a winner when things all come together without dissonance, finishing long and expressive.

Unfortunately one element—alcohol—has dominated the conversation about Pinot Noir. Though low alcohol from early-picked grapes makes it more difficult for winemakers to get flavor intensity and depth, I love those rare wines that deliver expansive flavors at relatively low alcohol levels. That Zena Crown Slope bottling clocks in at 12.7 percent, the Formaglini 12.8. The Elk Cove and Ken Wright 2014s are both 13.5. These are not big wines, but they deliver big personality. And flavor. Hurrah.

Alcohol Level Red Wines United States Oregon Pinot Noir Opinion

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