Oregon Pinot Noir Update

With the 2000 vintage now resting comfortably in barrel, it is clear that Oregon has enjoyed three consecutive very good to excellent vintages for pinot noir following the dismal 1995-97 trio of rain-plagued harvests. Although prices for many lesser Oregon pinots have exceeded the quality in the bottle in recent years, there no shortage of strong wine from the '98 and '99 vintages, which were the focus of my recent tastings of current and imminent releases.

The 1998 and 1999 vintages. Due to a poor flowering in '98, the crop level was low from the outset, so even chronic overcroppers had reasonable yields this year. The berries were generally small, ripeness levels were high, acids were average to lower than average, and most of the best fruit was in before rain began to fall in the second week of October. Some estates describe their wines as a bit too concentrated and too ripe, and in fact I did find some slightly roasted aromas in the '98s. But these wines avoid the excesses of the '94 vintage, an Amarone-like crop of wines that rarely lived up to the early hype. The best '98s are sappy and rich, with excellent density and solid tannic support.

Nineteen ninety-nine began with a healthy flowering, but the summer was unusually cool. Many growers, worried that their fruit would never ripen, thinned their crops, sometimes making multiple passes through their vines as September loomed and grape sugars remained low. The fall was then almost miraculously warm and dry, allowing growers to pick at leisure. October was the driest in 50 years, according to Adam Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards, who was able to wait until late that month to begin harvesting. "We had unusually long hang time of 120 days," he told me. "We only gained about two brix in the last three weeks but definitely got riper phenolics and more flavor complexity." Sugar levels were healthy, as were acids, thanks to the cool summer weather; there was little raisining of the fruit. "The wines have very good acidity for their richness," said Cristom's Paul Gerrie. "They're high in alcohol and built for laying down." I suspect that the best of the early releases I've tasted so far will be more expressive after another year or so in bottle. There will also be plenty of '99s that fall short due to excessive crop levels.

The number of Oregon wineries that can be counted on to make excellent wine when conditions are right has grown impressively since the early '90s. Yet there are still too many solid but unexciting wines whose appeal is limited by minor flaws or deficiencies: diffuse aromas and flavors; slightly hard-edged acids; excessive or crude oak; lack of complexity; green notes or dry tannins that come from overworked skins; the use of a high percentage of new oak to camouflage strong skin tannins in the early going; and lack of real concentration and grip due to high yields. Some wines, including those with relatively high pHs, finish with a bit too much bite, as their acids and tannins appear to clash. I continue to taste many Oregon pinots that are less than the sum of their parts: all the elements are present but do not quite mesh. Many wines lack pliancy, refinement and style. When Oregon pinots meriting scores in the 85 to 87 range are priced aggressively, they offer decent value. But these bottles are often priced at $40 or more. There's simply too much cheaper and suaver red wine from around the world for wine lovers to spend $40 for foursquare Oregon pinot.