Tasting through a lineup of 25 Oregon Pinot Noirs from the 2012 and 2013 vintages, I wondered why some of the 2012s, a ripe vintage, seemed thin and lacked flavor, while the 2013s, generally a much lighter vintage, struck me as comfortable in this naturally less opulent vintage.
My scores for each vintage in this particular group came out pretty close—averaging a little over 88 points. The wines I liked best and rated highest did not track with alcohol levels on the labels, either, so it wasn't that I liked richer or lighter wines better. For either style I noticed certain common words in my notes on the top-scoring wines—"expressive," "harmonious" and "seamless." The best wines had presence. They had length. And alcohol was not a factor.
The ones I downgraded were either too weak in flavor (mostly among the lighter styles) or, for the fuller-bodied styles, a bit heavy-handed. But I did note a key difference. The weak wines were not much fun to drink, at least for me. The riper ones, even when they overdid it a bit (these wines were still in the moderate range—13.5 to 14.2 percent alcohol), tasted of fruit, and I wanted another sip.
Vintners who wait for the grapes to flesh out only have to worry if their wines might go out of balance in the other direction, getting flabby, perhaps developing dried fruit or cooked fruit flavors.
But winemakers who follow a current trend toward lighter styles pose themselves a bigger challenge, especially in a vintage that wants to be ripe, such as 2012. To achieve lower alcohols, they risk picking the grapes too early for flavor to fully develop on the vine. These early-picked wines also tend to be sharp, either because the grapes had more acidity or there wasn't enough flavor to create a balance.
There are those who argue that too much fruit flavor obscures terroir, the sense of place that informs the character of a wine. I say fruit is part of terroir. We know Pommard tends to have more black fruit flavor in its profile than Beaune's red-fruit character. In Oregon I generally find more red fruit in Dundee Hills wines and black fruit in Eola-Amity Hills bottlings.
That's not all that distinguishes the wines from these places. Some regions tend to make fleshier wines, others more ethereal, yet others more tannic. The distinctions can be many, but without those differences in fruit flavors, a piece of the puzzle is missing. In short, I value most the wines where all the elements specific to a certain place can come through. Balancing these elements, not mere lightness, is the key.