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Tannins and Pinot Noir at Chehalem

What works best when wines aim for refinement?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 23, 2009 1:32pm ET

Harry Peterson-Nedry, whose Chehalem winery produces some of Oregon's finest, poured me a mini-vertical of two of his Pinot Noirs to compare side by side. As we tasted through his Chehalem Reserve and his RR from 2002 through 2007, we ended up talking a lot more about tannins and structure than anything else.

Both wines come from the Ridgecrest  Vineyard, with 38 acres of Pinot Noir in its 55 acres. Peterson-Nedry planted the site in 1982, making it one of the oldest in what is now known as the Ribbon Ridge AVA. He divides the grapes among three different bottlings. Some go into one labeled Chehalem Ridgecrest Vineyard. The most delicate barrels go into the Chehalem Reserve, and the biggest, most tannic make one called RR.

The vintner considers the RR so different that he bottles it under a separate label. Originally it was called Ribbon Ridge Vineyard, but when the name became more appropriate for the appellation, Peterson-Nedry offered Ribbon Ridge as a name for the AVA, and changed the winery name to RR starting with the 2005 vintage.

Brick House, Adelsheim, Archery Summit, Beaux Frères and other wineries that have vineyards in the AVA certainly appreciate that. At least they should. Changing the name of the winery avoided some of the contention that plagued the naming of other AVAs in Willamette Valley.

"Chehalem Reserve is a barrel selection, almost exclusively from Ridgecrest,” said Peterson-Nedry. "It's focused on an elegant, feminine style as much as the vintage will allow."

"When we take those barrels out of the mix, what's left is more structured. I use the word masculine. I used to add it to other bottlings for more backbone, but in 2002 I decided to bottle it separately.”

Both wines sell for around $60 a bottle. They are meant to be special, and I have rated several on release in the low 90s, others in the high 80s. They are wines of finesse, even the RR, and they sometimes disappoint me on their level of complexity. I wanted to see whether that developed in the bottle as expected.

In my experience, vineyards in Ribbon Ridge hit the dividing line between big, rich flavors and delicacy. Depending on the individual site and the winemaking style, the results can be grippy with tannins, or subtle and refined.

And that's what showed most prominently as Harry and I tasted through his wines. I expected the RR to shine in bigger, riper vintages, such as 2003 and 2006, and the Chehalem Reserve to play its finesse most effectively in the lighter years, such as 2007 and, to a lesser extent, 2004 and 2005.

In 2006, one of the hottest vintages on record in Oregon, the delicacy of the Reserve made it more expressive and welcoming than the RR, which seemed dark and brooding in comparison, and lacked that extra refinement that Pinot Noir can deliver. In 2004, a much more balanced year, the extra depth and power in the RR made it more expressive and complex than the Reserve. That's not the way they started. On release, I liked the delicacy of the Reserve better, but with a couple of years in the bottle, it shows less precision of flavor than the RR.

On the other hand, the 2005 Reserve seems to be fleshing itself out nicely, after a weak start. The 2005 RR still has the peppery character I liked so much on release, but the tannins need time to resolve. I like them equally now, but I preferred the RR early on.

There weren't any bad bottles. Generally, my scores in this tasting were within two or three points of the original ratings. We're talking nuances here, and time in the bottle seems to have shifted priorities for the wines.

If you're looking for perfect harmony in your Pinot Noir, this tasting suggests that we should look for styles that aim for delicacy in big vintages and those that try for more muscle in lighter ones. It makes sense, in a counterintuitive way.

Newcastle, WA, USA —  December 5, 2009 2:49pm ET
Your tasting with Harry brought to mind a bottle of 1994 Chehalem Reserve in the cellar. The bottle is somewhat special because it was part of a highly memorable wine experience and was acquired in a direct trade with Harry at the winery.

Here’s the story. A group of us had purchased an entire barrel of the 1994 Panther Creek, Bednarik Vineyard made by Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent. There were only 13 barrels of the Bednarik made that year. Ron Kaplan, then owner of Panther Creek, allowed the six of us to taste each barrel and select the barrel we thought best. We were then invited back to help with the bottling.

Months later on the drive home from picking up the wine, we stopped by Chehalem on the way out of the valley. It was the Memorial Day weekend open house and Harry was pouring. I mentioned to him the story about buying the barrel. He suggested a trade: a bottle of his Reserve for a bottle of PC Bednarik. I readily agreed. Harry gave me a bottle without a label or capsule. It has proudly sat in cellar until yesterday.

We opened the wine with dinner and it showed very well. Sandwiched between the elegant and classic 1993 vintage and the problematic 1995’s, the wines from 1994 vintage were highly-extracted, fruity, tannic monsters. At the time the 94’s were touted as the best vintage for Oregon Pinot Noirs to date. The belief, however, was they would not age. Wrong! The 1994 Chehalem Reserve is still youthful, showing only hints of maturing with a very slight orange rim, still bright red fruit, tea, leather, mineral flavors, resolved tannins and a lasting finish. My guess is it is probably at its peak but with many more years to go before going over the hill. Just wish I had traded two bottles instead of one.
Harry Peterson-nedry
Newberg, Oregon —  December 23, 2009 6:24pm ET
Sometimes my memory fails me, but I remember your visit well. Thanks for your report on how the 1994 is holding up and, to your wish to have traded for two bottles, stop by on your next convenient trip to Oregon and I'll pull one from library for you.

Although wines differ in ageability vintage-to-vintage, most balanced cool climate Pinot Noir with good acid and good extraction can last 15 years before beginning to "go over the hill", some 25+ years (I just last week had a 1974 Eyrie Pinot Noir that was gorgeous and gives a great standard to shoot for).

Ageability of Chehalem wines are reported on periodically, the latest being in our Spring 2009 Newsletter (http://www.chehalemwines.com/newsletter_archives/pdf/2009_spring_newsletter.pdf).

Harry Peterson-Nedry

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