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Delicate Vs. Wimpy

A fine line separates wines with finesse from those that are just too light
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 6, 2011 11:47am ET

Tasting last week through a couple dozen Oregon Pinot Noirs, mostly 2009s—and therefore quite fragile in structure—I found myself musing over why some of them made my eyes light up while others just seemed weak.

Some of my friends, those who prefer wines with transparency and nuanced qualities, would probably have loved all of them. This is the kind of wine, they might say, that's so hard to find in this era of big flavor (and often big alcohols). Others, the folks who like bigger, bolder wines, might have dismissed them all as wimpy.

Me, I am a wine omnivore. I like big, bounding Syrahs and sleek, racy Pinot Noirs. Even within the Pinot Noir category, I can appreciate the richness and plushness of some of the bigger wines even though my ideal for the grape is a wine with more transparency than density.

No question, the degree of difficulty is higher in making a great lighter-style wine. It's easier to achieve richness, suppleness, ripe flavors and tannins in bigger wines. Lighter wines can come off as one-dimensional or weak. Or, since the grapes for a lighter style are often picked early (i.e., less ripe), the acidity can stick out or the tannins can have a green character. Creating a balance among fruit character and the complexities of minerality or earthiness or floral notes or spice presents a challenge, but it can define what Pinot Noir is all about for me.

One wine in this blind tasting put things into sharp relief. I can't identify it because the review has not appeared yet, but I can describe it. On first sip, it whispered. It struck me as very light, almost devoid of intensity. But something caught my attention on the finish, a haunting hint of orange or citrus, mixed with the background tone of raspberry. I took another sip, and the flavors started to define themselves. A mineral note swam into view, the citrus note expanded into something reminiscent of Earl Grey tea, and the finish picked up momentum, fleshing out the raspberries with hints of red currant as it all lingered enticingly and persistently.

One of the most important assets of an outstanding wine is a long finish, and this one had it. Its initial sense of lightness took on an ethereal quality as the flavors expanded without adding any weight. It was as if they were hovering over the delicate framework.

That, indeed, was the point. The flavors came through, showed depth and complexity, and lingered on the finish. That's the difference between wines that are just light and those that deserve to be described as delicate.

Pinot Noir can do that—balance a complex array of aromas and flavors on the head of a pin. It's finesse, which I define as a wine's ability to deliver the unexpected, whether it's this delicate wine's surprisingly deep and seductive flavors or the deft dance of a richer-styled wine that finds welcome freshness and vitality.

With this finesse, I rated it 94 points, just shy of classic. It was a heck of a wine but the range of flavor did not get to the classic level (95 points or higher). Many wine drinkers will shrug it off as wimpy, simply because it did not reach out and grab them on the first sip. I always try to be patient and see if the wine will come to me. This one did.

I wish I could say that was the case with all of the 2009s in my tasting, but alas, the vintage is not as consistently fine as the 2008s were, the products of a cool summer and perfect weather at harvest. In 2009, vineyards struggled to get things ripe. Those who succeeded made delicate wines. Unfortunately, I tasted through a lot of wimpy bottles to find the good ones.

Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  September 6, 2011 10:04pm ET
Harvey, with your tasting beat, it would be great to get your take on Ontario pinot. Generalizing, I would place them between Oregon and NZ, showing bright fruit, good minerality, with more density than the former and less pungently earthy than the latter. If you get the chance, 07 and 09 are some of the best recent vintages.
Steve Gale
Portland, Oregon —  September 7, 2011 3:00am ET
Thanks for lending a hand to the celebration of what elegance and complexity of what great wines should be! I wish you had been able to attend the tasting of Eyries "South Block" wines a few weeks ago. Truely a benchmark tasting in my life with wine. David Letts select "South Block" from 1975 through his final 2007 vintage were truely a signiture through the best of Oregon wine history. Even the most hard core Burgundian would have to taste in awe of the deft hand that allowed place and terrior to show though. The 1976 was most impressive to me, still showing fresh and vibrant fruit, depth of flavor, and the signiture of Oregon (elegance, fruit, spice, and forest floor.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 7, 2011 12:05pm ET
Ivan, we don't see many Canadian wines here in California. The review bottles go my colleagues in New York, and only B.C. has any presence at all in my local market. The winemaker at Evening Land in Oregon came there from Ontario, and she might agree with you about where the wines from there fit on the spectrum.

And Steve, you are right, that Eyrie 1976 was indeed a classic. It was the wine that convinced a lot of people (Robert Drouhin included) that Oregon could do something special with Pinot Noir. The impressive thing for me is that vintners there have succeeded in a range of styles, from fragile to powerful. The good ones, of course, always have refinement and balance.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  September 8, 2011 10:58am ET
Nice article, Harvey. A wine that consistently straddles that line by providing delicacy and refinement, but not straying into the wimpy category, is Belle Pente's 'Belle Pente Vineyard' Pinot Noir. Complex, very aromatic, precise, but not at all heavy or overly plush - yum.

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