Focus on Oregon Pinot Noir

Comparisons between Oregon and Burgundy have never been more apt than with the 2007 vintage, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Mother Nature has been throwing change-ups and curve balls at Oregon’s pinot noir growers since the 2003 vintage, and 2007 brought a host of challenges to producing great wine. It was a vintage of high yields, with a cool, often cloudy and rainy June, July and August. The prediction of up to ten inches of rain for the week of September 28 caused many growers to bring in their fruit too early: sugar levels were correct but acid levels were still extremely high. The rains came, but not in the Biblical proportions that had been called for, and the Willamette Valley then settled into a relatively dry state of cool, cloudy weather that went on until the middle of November. Growers who decided to bite their nails and let their fruit hang, thus allowing the acidity levels in their grapes to drop, harvested until the beginning of November.

Even at their best, the 2007 pinots are wines of questionable cellar-worthiness. They will appeal to wine-lovers who prize elegance, tangy red fruits and spiciness, and in most cases they are the polar opposites of the fleshy, rich and densely packed 2006s. “The best 2007s are excellent expressions of pinot’s elegance and precision,” said Patton Valley’s Jerry Murray. “They’ll remind people that Oregon can produce wines with real finesse.” While tasting through the 2007s from the Willamette Valley, I was reminded of the 1993 vintage, whose wines also mostly showed a lean, ungenerous side for their first few years in the bottle. Most of the 1993s never gained sweetness or flesh, but the best examples, which are graceful and focused, continue to surprise patient—or forgetful—collectors who pull those wines from their cellars today. Jim Anderson of Patricia Green Cellars compares the 2007s to 2001 “for their beautiful scents” and notes that the wines “are much more demure and absolutely lower in alcohol than wines from the previous five vintages.” He also notes that some will surprise with their power when they knit together. The fact that weight and richness don’t ensure cellar-worthiness isn’t news, especially for pinot noir, but a significant percentage of 2007s are flat-out tart. Only the most optimistic, or delusional, tasters are going to lay money on most 2007s gaining depth and sweet fruit with age.

On the other hand, fans of racy, pure pinot will get immediate pleasure from a number of 2007s. Many winemakers who craft their wines in a less-powerful, restrained style actually prefer their 2007s to their 2006s, which is understandable when you taste the wines side-by-side. As a rule, 2006 is about dark, densely packed, warm fruit, while the best 2007s show the incisive red fruit side of pinot. In 2007, said Josh Bergstrom, “early sunburn left many clusters with unripe green berries due to the anthocyanic and phenolic development being stunted in the cluster.” He went on: “Many clusters had between 5 and 15 green berries peppered throughout a ripe bunch of fruit. If those berries weren’t picked out, there would be green, herbaceous flavors and unripe acids in the finished wines.” This kind of painstaking selection is a laborious and expensive process, and simply not feasible for every producer.

In addition to the 2007 pinots I tasted in recent weeks, I also tried a number of 2006s that were released after my tastings for last year’s coverage. These are mostly prestige bottlings that get extended cellar time, so they tend to be the producers’ richest and most powerful offerings. If the restrained 2007s don’t float your pinot boat, many of these 2006s likely will.