This tasting was part of a series I did while in Oregon recently, revisiting the wines of the 2000s at four leading producers of Oregon Pinot Noir (last week I reported on a vertical of Pinot Noirs from Shea Vineyard).
Lynn Penner-Ash could not resist throwing in the 1998 and 1999 when I asked her to pour all of her Willamette Valley bottlings of Pinot Noir from 2000 on. But I was happy to see those first two vintages. She made them as a semi-secret project while she was still president and winemaker of Rex Hill winery and her husband and partner in the nascent Penner-Ash, Ron, was teaching school in Portland.
I remember tasting that first vintage from barrel on a visit to Rex Hill. That first slurp made it clear that Lynn had a different idea for her own wines. Although that 1998 used three of the same sources as Rex Hill did (Jacob-Hart, Carabella and Maresh vineyards), it showed more oomph than the big winery’s bottling. It seemed less concerned with fragile delicacy and aimed more for intensity and depth, without losing elegance. She made only 125 cases of it.
That thread runs through all of Penner-Ash’s Pinots. They are neither the biggest nor the most delicate of Willamette Valley’s wines, but they always have depth and complexity, and they find elegance even in the ripest vintages. The Willamette Valley blend represents consistency and would be a worthy flagship wine at $45, its current price. At 4,500 to 5,000 cases, it holds its own against the winery’s smaller single-vineyard bottlings that have increased to five wines over the years.
Part of the reason the wine has some depth is the changing cast of vineyard sources. In mid-decade the leading sites gravitated from vineyards in Yamhill-Carlton and Chehalem Mountains toward Eola-Amity Hills—Palmer Creek and, more recently, Zena Crown. To me these bring more crispness and freshness to the party. Twelve different vineyards make up the 2008.
Tasting through the years demonstrated just how consistent these wines have been, despite the changing cast and production in three different wineries. As she left Rex Hill the winemaking moved to the Carlton Winemakers Studio for the 2002 vintage, and finally to the current state-of-the-art gravity-flow winery in 2005.
As with the other vertical tastings I did on this visit to Oregon, the older wines demonstrated just how fresh and vibrant Oregon Pinots can remain even after a decade. That first wine strikes a welcome balance between the earthy complexity Pinot lovers crave and a glowing thread of fresh fruit flavors. Of all the vintages, the only one I would call on the downslope was 2000, and it’s still drinking well.
My favorite vintage of the older wines was 2005, which balanced savory notes of bergamot tea (think Earl Grey) against berry and spice flavors on an elegant frame. It feels fragile at first, but gets richer and plusher with each sip. And the 2008 equals that one. It represents this vintage, in my view the best in Oregon history, perfectly. It starts off light and explodes with fruit, finishing creamy and harmonious.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1998: Still fresh and fragrant with plum, wet earth and wet leaves, currant fruit comes through in the mouth, a hint of tomato leaf, with delicacy and refinement. Has maturity without losing the fruit. 91 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1999: Not quite as vivid as 1998, and it has a sharp edge to the red fruit flavors, which get stronger as the finish goes on. But really elegant. 90 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2000: Earthy, meaty aromas, firm tannins, a bit tougher to warm up to than the 1999 or 1998. But there’s some dark fruit lurking, plus more spice and tobacco. Leafy and slightly gamy too. 86 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2001: Lighter, more transparent in color. Tight and focused. Juicy blackberry and cherry. Fleshed out but not heavy. Not a classic wine, but it has classic bones. 90 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2002: Feels a bit aggressive, with rich fruit against tough tannins, has depth and focus but lacks the grace and elegance of other vintages. Still feels raw and unformed, but has power behind the cherry and dark berry fruit, smoky overtones. 90 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2003: Bigger, riper, more plush, but still in bounds, nicely knit with ripe cherry and spice. Succulent and plush, finishing going along well. 91 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2004: Supple, sweet and directly appealing, harmonious and dripping with rich cherry, raspberry, red plum, spice and hints of toast as the finish going on and on. 91 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2005: Lighter, less forward, more elegant and reticent, with very pretty bergamot tea-accented berry and spice flavors, lingering enticingly, getting fleshier with each sip. 92 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2006: Very rich and a bit hot, but it tries to stay light on its feet. Very ripe red fruit, focused and powerful. Not as graceful, but the seams hold. 88 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2007: Supple, refined, generous with its currant and plum fruit, plush in texture with just a hint of herbal, peppery bitterness on the finishing tannins. Has some flesh. 89 points, non-blind.
Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2008: Starts off light, but then explodes with ripe red berry and currant fruit, with complex cream, spice and white pepper weaving through the long and expressive finish. Has extraordinary balance, refinement and harmony, and delicious sweetness. 92 points, non-blind.