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Changes at Eyrie Vineyard

Tasting the differences, and history, with Jason Lett
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 4, 2012 3:58pm ET

Jason Lett has been working on a project, tasting through every single bottle of Eyrie Vineyard’s library wines, then recorking them. The collection represents one of the true treasures of American Pinot Noir, hundreds of bottles that testify to the longevity and quality possible in Oregon.

When he has time, Lett opens eight cases of a vintage. It takes about half a day and most of the time 90 percent of the bottles are just fine. Sometimes, he said, “only 45 will be correct for the vintage,” an experience that has led him to reseal the bottles with a cork alternative called Diam, which promises zero cork taint.

Jason’s father, David Lett, one of Oregon’s earliest pioneers, founded Eyrie in 1966, and made the wine that called the world’s attention to what was happening with Pinot Noir in Oregon—Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir Oregon South Block 1975. It was made from a portion of the estate vineyard in what is now known as the Dundee Hills AVA.

Though it did not win the top prize in the Gault-Millau Wine Olympics, a multiday tasting staged in Paris in 1979, it finished in the top 10. A long list of well-known Burgundies ranked behind it. That caught the attention of Burgundy négociant Robert Drouhin, who repeated the tasting for himself the following year and got the same result. Eight years later, Drouhin was in the Oregon wine business, an important moment of validation in the history of American Pinot Noir.

All the while Lett continued to make Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in the same delicate, whispery style that so charmed the international tasters in France, even as the prevailing style of Oregon Pinot Noir aimed for greater richness and power. Eyrie’s wines of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s could seem thin in comparison, but Lett stood his ground. The wines aged beautifully.

On a recent visit to the Eyrie winery, an old dairy in McMinnville, Ore., Jason opened some of those bottles for me and we talked about the direction he sees for Eyrie since his father died in 2008. He does have his own ideas. In particular he likes a significantly more prevalent tannic backbone in his wines than his father did. He also is willing to risk natural yeast fermentations, which his father never wanted. In short, he wants a little more going on in the wines, even as they remain in the lighter end of the stylistic spectrum.

Jason took responsibility for Eyrie’s winemaking in 2005. “When Dad handed the keys over to me,” he shrugged, “he had to bite his tongue over it.” Although Jason changed the winemaking, he insisted that David continue to make the South Block. “He decided when to pick, chose the barrel and the wine fermented according to his protocol,” Lett said. “2007 was his last vintage. He blended it a week before he passed.” That was also the last vintage of South Block, no longer bottled as a separate wine.

The highlight of our tasting came with a comparison of South Block Pinot Noirs 1993 and 2007. The 2007 showed a bit of animal aromatics in the nose and the mouth, but sweet fruit flavors and silky texture supply a balance. It is light, refined, with red berry, a hint of prosciutto, and finely integrated tannins. The 1993 has matured into a supple, rich wine, surprisingly so, as it felt quite light when it was young. Black tea, peppery spice, dark fruit and roasted meat flavors persist into the long and expressive finish.

“South Block epitomizes what he wanted to do,” Lett added, “wines that were light and elegant.”

A fascinating prelude to that pairing was a run through some of Jason’s own wines, BlackCap, which he started in 2002. “Back when my dad and I were not trying to make soup in the same kitchen, I started this label and made the wines at another facility. Now the BlackCap wines are made here at Eyrie.”

Lett buys grapes from Eola Hills and Yamhill-Carlton for BlackCap and uses the brand to experiment. “It’s a test bed for techniques, different size fermentors, post-fermentation soaks. This is where I got into indigenous fermentations.”

By that he means using the natural yeasts adhering to the grapes rather than inoculating with Champagne yeasts, as his father did. He started to apply the idea to Eyrie Pinot Noirs in 2008 with 20 percent native yeasts. He went to 50 percent in 2009 and 100 percent in 2010.

“I believe that natural yeasts, and things like whole-cluster fermentations at sub-threshold levels can bring an edge of excitement to the wine. It can lift the hairs on the back of your neck when you smell it. And it comes from the vineyard, not from the cooper. I like oak, but it can be overdone.”

The effects are easy to see in the Pinot Noir Estate 2009. In a hot vintage, when others produced weighty wines, Eyrie’s tasted light on the palate and effusively fragrant. The alcohol level is close to 14 percent, but you don’t feel it. The 2010, with 100 percent natural yeasts, showed a tangy wild berry character, lovely transparency, finishing with dark fruit and black tea flavors.

Those wines don’t show evidence of Jason’s preference for more tannins, but the 2005 through 2008 certainly do. 2005 had a sweetness to the dark berry fruit and the finish has a light grip to it. 2006 had more richness, and more tannins, with a white chocolate or caramel note on the finish. 2007 was crisp, both in acidity and tannins, but remained light and vibrant, with rose petal accents. Many 2007s show green flavors, but not this one.

“I’ll take a vintage like ’07 every year,” Lett said. “Mother Nature dictated when picking would happen. We’d have a day of light rain and two or three days of cool and dry. We weren’t being goaded and ripped by spikes of ripening, so we could pick each block when it was perfect. And we got an extra two weeks of ripening time.”

Although David avoided extracting too much tannins, Jason is encouraging it with whole-cluster fermentations, inclusion of stems, and post-fermentation macerations. “It has to be the right kind of tannins,” he added. “I’m looking for tannins that are a savory accompaniment to the fruit on the palate. I don’t look at the tannins as something to preserve the wine, but to accompany the wine in the present. The wine’s structure remains with acidity.”

There were two other pairs to taste: Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

The PInot Gris 2010 was rich in texture, showing lovely pear and spice flavors. The 1989 veered to a strongly toasty character, polished, still lively and vibrant, a lot less fruit of course but with complex tobacco accents.

“Saving these old PInot Gris is the result of a father-son argument, which I lost,” Jason said. “I kept asking Dad, why are we librarying PInot Gris? These are the answers.”

The Chardonnay pairing compared the 1973 Oregon Chardonnay with the 2010 Original Vines Reserve, made from the same vineyard. The 2010 is silky, with pretty pear and floral flavors that linger nicely. The 1973 showed an amazingly light color, definite mineral notes on the nose, with lanolin and lime blossoms, delicacy and length, a slight undertone of bitterness taking in down. Non-blind, I rated both wines 88 points for sheer quality, but the 1973 gets a 95 for the experience.

That’s how it goes with older wines. And Jason Lett is doing the right thing to preserve the library.

Greg Malcolm
St. Louis, Missouri —  September 4, 2012 6:56pm ET
Nice blog. I was glad to have the opportunity to taste the 1983 Eyrie South Block Pinot Noir when I was at the winery in late July. It and the 1985 Arterberry Reserve Pinot Noir, which Jim Maresh graciously poured on a visit last year, are impressive testaments to the quality of wine that some of the early Oregon pioneer wine makers were producing.
Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  September 6, 2012 4:54pm ET
Great piece, Harvey. It is always difficult to take over for a legend and Papa Pinot was just that...a true legend. Jason is the only person, in my estimation, who could have taken over for his Dad at Eyrie. And my bet is that his Dad is smiling down from the great vineyard in the sky right now.

I agree with Greg...if you ever get a chance to try some of the older Pinots like the early South Blocks or Arterberry Reserves or Weber Vineyards or my epiphany wine, the 1983 Yamhill Valley Vineyard, jump on it. We got to try the 1983 Yamhill Valley Vineyard Pinot noir last year at a pre-IPNC dinner at the winery. Owner Denis Burger was the most gracious host and somehow found four 750s of the wine. Two were shot, one was acceptable but the fourth bottle was nirvana. By the way, Fred Arterberry made that wine from 10 tons of Hyland Vineyard grapes. I can still taste it.
Greg Malcolm
St. Louis, Missouri —  September 7, 2012 3:08pm ET
Tom -- If you are a fan of Weber Vineyard, Jim Maresh (Fred's son) made a 2010 Arterberry-Maresh Weber Vineyard Pinot Noir that, IMHO, has the potential to be fantastic in a few years.
Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  September 9, 2012 2:04pm ET
Greg, thanks for the heads up on the Arterberry-Maresh Weber. It appears that this bottling is 100% Pommard clone so it's got that going for it as well.

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