Oregon Pinot Noir Update

My annual coverage of current Oregon pinot noir releases focuses on the '96s and '97s, an average and a weak year, respectively, that nonetheless offered better raw material than the rot plagued, underripe 1995 vintage. Nineteen ninety six generally featured decent physiological ripeness and sound acids. Crop levels and cluster sizes were generally in the low average range, and flavors were reasonably ripe. Two days of fairly heavy rain in mid-September had the widespread effect of sending grape sugars higher, and fruit harvested during the first third of October was picked under mostly dry conditions. Rain began to fall on October 11, and measurable precipitation fell nearly every day for the next two weeks. Late pickers were mostly out of luck.

Nineteen ninety seven witnessed a rainier late August, September and October. Following a wet final week of August and a week of rain in mid September, the last third of September was mostly dry, though not much fruit was ripe enough to pick before the 25th. The rains returned again on October 1, and relatively little strong material was picked thereafter as the grapes began to soften and become diluted. Most growers, having learned from their experiences with bunch rot in '95, were better prepared to fight off rot in '97. But the vintage, as a rule, offers only modest ripeness and concentration and slightly washed-out colors.

In my most recent tastings, the '96s as a group showed more depth of flavor, and generally healthier colors, than the '97s, and a number of the '96s appear to have the structure to evolve in bottle. Some may offer pleasant surprises with two to five years of aging. It remains difficult to generalize about these two vintages, however, just as it is tough to characterize the distinct qualities of various vineyards and microclimates in Oregon. This lack of consistent terroir character is largely a function of technical shortcomings among many of the state winemakers (a more important issue when harvest conditions are dicey) and of a lack of continuity in winemakers' styles. I still taste too many wines with green or phenolic notes from incompletely ripened fruit or clumsy extraction. I also taste too many bottles that are overoaked (or "underwined," in the description of Jean Marie Guffens). And I still encounter too many wines whose acidity doesn't harmonize with their fruit.

As in past years, reserve and single vineyard bottlings from Oregon tend to be more oaky and more heavily extracted, and considerably more expensive, but they are not necessarily better. Some of the state's most graceful, flexible wines are those made with a light hand.

While it's easy to say that Oregon has not yet delivered on its early promise, and that the best pinots from North America come from Sonoma County (from the Russian River Valley west to the Sonoma Coast), it is also obvious that Oregon suffered through a trio of rain-plagued harvests in '95, '96 and '97. All indications are that the '98 vintage was far more successful (with riper fruit, generally good balance of sugars, acids and tannins, and drier harvest conditions), and I look forward to tasting and reporting on these wines next year.

A word on pricing. Following early hype for the very ripe '94 vintage, a year that featured a tiny crop, many Oregon wineries hiked their prices sharply. Whether these often raisiny, Amarone like wines merited their high prices in the first place (in most cases, they are not aging well, and many of them may have peaked in the months prior to bottling), most '95s from the same wineries certainly did not. And the '96s and '97s now available in the retail market offer questionable value. Not surprisingly, many producers averse to lowering prices have seen a slowdown in sales of their pinots. Today, there are too many decent but unexciting pinots in the $35-and-up range, and these will not make new friends for Oregon among wine lovers with access to the best pinots from California and Burgundy. On the other hand, many producers maintained pricing stability in '94, and new vintages of their wines still offer reasonable value in today's market.