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Oregon Pinot Noir 2011

A meditation on finesse and transparency
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 18, 2013 11:31am ET

The 2011 Pinot Noirs from Oregon are going to polarize wine drinkers. Vintners will tell you how much they love their 2011s. They expect that those who value deftness, lightness and delicacy will too. But if you want consistency, clearly delineated flavors and a sense of presence, you might be disappointed.

Having now blind-tasted 250 Pinot Noirs from this cold, late and high-yielding vintage, I admire the professionalism and dedication of those winemakers who managed to make compelling wines. There are quite a few of them, an indication of just how far Oregon has come in its ability to make quality wines in a difficult year. More vintners succeeded in 2011 than in 1997, 2000 or 2007, lighter years when optimal ripeness was a struggle.

All but the very best 2011s, however, lack the depth and intensity of a great vintage. The lighter-is-better crowd may not admit it, but a larger percentage than usual whiffed on the vintage and made thin, boring wines. This does not happen in a great vintage.

These results should not come as a surprise. After a summer of cooler-than-normal temperatures, rain showers in late September arrived just as a very large crop was struggling to get ripe. Growers and winemakers had to make tough calls. Do they pick now, before the grapes develop their full flavor? Or risk losing it all by letting them hang? The sun came out, and temperatures remained cool enough to keep mold and other disease pressures from ruining the crop in most vineyards. Inevitably, however, a significant percentage of grapes never quite got there.

It's not a matter of sugar development. Some of my favorite wines of the vintage so far clock in at 12 to 12.9 percent alcohol. It's about the grapes attaining a flavor profile that could ferment into something special. Those who failed to thin enough bunches got weak flavors. There's a lot of good Oregon Pinot Noir in 2011, but few great ones.

The earliest wines released suggested that regional and statewide blends might be more complete and harmonious than single-vineyard bottlings that command higher prices. In weaker vintages Pinot Noir from a single site can feel like it's missing something, and blending with wines from other sites can fill in the blanks and make a more satisfying wine.

That was early going. More recent releases, having fleshed out in the bottle two years after the vintage, more fully reflect the characteristics of individual sites. Still, this is a good vintage to rely on statewide blends for everyday drinking, especially if you prefer lighter styles.

Two factors, it seems to me, separate the more successful wines from the rest: experience and vineyard practices.

Many of the best wines were made by winemakers who have learned from Oregon's nail-biting cold and rainy harvest seasons. They had the confidence and know-how to handle what Mother Nature threw at them.

I've also noticed that biodynamically farmed vineyards produced wines with both rich flavors and low alcohol levels. Bergström, Beaux Frères and Brick House made some of the most vibrant and complete wines. At its best, the 2011 vintage could produce wines like Beaux Frères 2011, which I described as "light and fragrant, deftly balanced to let its cinnamon- and pepper-accented red cherry and raspberry flavors step forward with presence and depth, lingering with intensity but without any sense of weight."

Unfortunately many more are like this one, from a prominent producer who usually gets scores in the 90s: "Light, with a tight curtain of fine tannins around a modest core of tobacco-accented dark berry flavors. Lingers gently." That one got 87 points.

The 2011 vintage is also sandwiched between two years that produced higher percentages of successful wines. The 2010s, also on the lighter side, have riper flavors, more or less a classic Oregon vintage. The 2012s are generally richer and riper. As I tasted a representative sampling of the top 2012s at the wineries, it struck me that as earnestly as the winemakers praised their achievements in 2011, they were grinning ear to ear as they talked about 2012. Ideal weather let winemakers put into the bottle pretty much whatever they preferred.

Drink 2011 Oregon Pinots for their delicacy, but if you prefer richness, look for the 2012s as they are released over the next year or two.

Richard Chapman
Des Moines, Iowa, USA —  October 21, 2013 5:19pm ET
My wife and I joined several friends in July to sample Pinot noirs in the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland. We were pleasantly surprised by the variety of vintages, and some, like Penner-Ash's blend, were full-bodied. By the way, many thanks to W.S. for the incredible articles on Oregon pinots, especially the history of the vintners.

Rick Chapman
Sandy Fitzgerald
Whitesville, KY —  October 23, 2013 10:23am ET

Great review of the vintage. An additional problem I have noticed is that the vintage produced many very acidic wines that aren't well balanced. As a friend said when describing a wine: Pairs perfectly with a Rolaid or Tums!

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