Oregon Verticals: Shea

Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is bigger, broader and arguably better now
May 12, 2010

On a recent visit to Oregon to taste as many 2009 Pinot Noirs from barrel as I could, I cajoled several wineries into opening some of their older wines. I wanted to see how the Pinot Noirs of this past decade have evolved.

Across the board I found that even the oldest wines retain a freshness and vitality that is a prime requirement for ageable wines. Those of us who prize Pinot Noir, whether from Burgundy, California, Oregon or points beyond, know that this is not always the case. Many Pinots, even the best ones, can start showing signs of fatigue at five to seven years.

Another observation: The decade saw 10 markedly different vintages. Making Pinot Noir in Oregon is a roller coaster. Wide swings in heat and cold can wreak havoc with a vine’s growth and the grapes’ ripening curve. Rain can affect the harvest. Untimely heat waves in 2003 and 2006, for example, made for wines that could be heady and extrarich. In 2005 and even more so in 2007, cool, rainy conditions tested the patience and mettle of the winemakers.

But Mother Nature’s mood swings have toughened up the better winemakers in Oregon. They have learned to deal with these challenges, as their successes with the more recent vintages show. Even in 2007, when lesser winemakers blew their decision on when to pick and made green, thin wines, the smarter or luckier ones picked ripe grapes and bottled some lovely stuff.

It’s easy to see how overall winemaking has improved dramatically over the decade. Nowhere in my research did that upward swing show more clearly than at Shea Vineyard, which bottled its first wines in 2001.

Dick Shea points to the winery’s successes in hot vintages. “2003 was the year of the heat,” he said. “We thought you had to drink 'em up, but they’re getting more friendly as they age. And 2006 and 2009 were possible because of what we learned in ’03 about how to handle the grapes and get better balance into the wines.”

Dick and Dierdre Shea planted their vineyard in the late 1980s and sold grapes to some of the top wineries in Oregon. Today they still sell to more than two dozen vintners, but they also have identified certain portions of the 200 acres of rolling hills for themselves. The vineyard lies at the edge of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, close enough to the Ribbon Ridge AVA to wave hello across a shallow valley to vintners such as Beaux Frères and Patricia Green.

Green, in fact, made the 2000 and 2001 vintages of Shea’s wines at her cellar. The next few vintages were made at Adelsheim by Sam Tannahill, now partner and winemaker at Rex Hill and A to Z. The new winery was up and running in 2007, and now all the winemaking is done in house.

For this tasting, I asked Dick to pour the Estate bottling, which blends several parcels of the vineyard and comprises all of the major clones growing there. This includes Oregon’s original clonal set, Pommard and Wadenswil, and a cross section of the generally earlier-ripening Dijon clones that arrived in the 1990s.

As you can see by these tasting notes, the best wines are the most recent. They are also the ripest and richest. The 2008, generally a fragile but wonderful vintage in Willamette Valley, shows more muscle and power than most others. This has evolved into the house style.

“Full bodied, ripe, not over the top,” Dick explained, “but then one person’s over the top is not another person’s. We think that’s what Shea fruit does best. At least it’s what turns us on.”

“I think it’s still evolving,” Dierdre chimed in. “We’re still finding what works best. We’ve gone to a little more new oak in some of the releases.”

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2001: Ripe and slurpy, with a green edge to the currant fruit. Straightforward, not very complex. Nice refinement, but it has a tough edge. 87 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2002: Meaty aromas, meaty flavors, overwhelms the fruit. There is some nice fruit, but the off flavors drag it down. 83 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2003: Very ripe and broad, spicy, generous and open textured, finishing a bit hot, but the fruit feels fresh and it has opulence. The appeal is palpable. 91 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2004: Ripe and smooth, with a strong root beer quality to the dark fruit, not a fruit-forward wine but more savory, spicy. Holds together on the finish, but feels like it’s still coming together. 91 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2005: A bit watery, but the fruit is pure and clear, persisting with currant and plum on a middle-weight palate, lingering expressively. Caramel, root beer, pure and focused. Has excellent balance. 92 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2006: Supple, round and ripe, very generous and disarmingly lush, no dried fruit but strong cherry, berry and tea leaf, remaining sweet and broad through the long finish. 90 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2007: Has freshness and clarity, nice sense of ripeness to the currant and plum flavors, more violet and floral mixing in on the finish. 90 points, non-blind.

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2008: Pure and generous, explosive on the nose, rose petal and strawberry notes mingling with cherry and chocolate on the long and vivid finish. 93 points, non-blind.

United States Oregon Red Wines Pinot Noir

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