Focus on Oregon Pinot Noir

There is already considerable buzz in some quarters about the 2006 pinot noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but while I tasted many outstanding wines from this vintage, my feeling is that ‘06 will be a year that delivers its charms early. And that is just fine with most producers, who realize that the vast majority of their wines, especially those sold in restaurants, will be drunk up in the next two or three years. There’s no denying the appeal of a fruity pinot noir year like 2006, but for fans of finesse and the complexity that bottle aging can bring, 2005 is a more intriguing vintage.

Higher than normal rainfall in the Willamette Valley throughout the winter of ‘05/’06 led into a 2006 season that started a week or two later than average, with bud break occurring in late April. A warm May and June followed, with good rainfall that screeched to a halt once summer arrived. July and August were very dry and warm, with no real precipitation, but water stored up from the winter and spring rains helped to maintain vine health and vigor. According to Chehalem’s Harry Peterson-Nedry, 2006 had almost identical cumulative degree days as 2003, the hottest year on record. There was a danger of vines shutting down but that fear was allayed when moderate rainfall occurred in mid-September, putting the vines back on course. As consumers ponder how long they want to cellar their 2006s, they might consider the warmth of the year. Pinot noirs from hot vintages typically drink better in their youth than they do five to eight years down the road as freshness of fruit is lost and stewy or roasted character can emerge in its place. Yields in 2006 were also much higher than average—in fact, according to Luisa Ponzi, it was “one of the largest crops ever.” Green harvesting was a necessity due to high vigor, many growers told me, and large clusters of large grapes were the rule.

In sharp contrast, 2005 was, according to Peterson-Nedry, “an old-fashioned Willamette vintage, which was made for old-fashioned winemakers, like me, who know how to adjust to adverse conditions. It was cool and damp, sure, but that’s a traditional climate for pinot. None of our wines hit 14% alcohol. It’s a year for people who like balance and finesse.” I was pleasantly surprised this February by the energy and incipient complexity that many 2005s have developed in the past year, and was also reminded that pinot noir is usually better at seduction than at manhandling.

As wine-lovers attempt to come to grips with the harsh reality of current Burgundy pricing, which is exacerbated by demand for the outstanding 2005s as well as by the limp U.S. dollar, the best Oregon pinot noirs increasingly look like steals. I tasted dozens of 90+-point wines that can be found on the shelf for the same price as—and often less than—2005 Bourgogne rouge. All but the most exorbitant Oregon pinots cost about the same as most village Burgundies; and one can buy a case of seriously complex and satisfying 2005 or 2006 Willamette Valley pinot for the price of a single bottle of many Burgundy grand crus from 2005. At what point does common sense take precedence over ego gratification and label-fondling?

I tasted the majority of these wines over the course of a week in the Willamette Valley in early February, and the rest in New York in recent weeks.