Oregon Pinot Noir Update

Since the rain-plagued harvests of 1995, 1996 and 1997, Oregon has enjoyed a string of highly successful vintages. My tastings of current and imminent releases this winter focused on later arrivals from the 1999 vintage, which numerous growers in Willamette Valley consider the best year yet for pinot noir, and early releases from 2000, a warm year without climate extremes in which a dry fall allowed growers to pick at leisure.My tasting notes on the following pages include some of the most stylish and complete pinots I've tasted to date from Oregon, wines that strongly make the case that the Willamette Valley best sites can consistently produce world-class pinot noir. But beyond the 15 or so top estates that can be counted on to take advantage of favorable vintage conditions, plus the one or two new quality-conscious wineries that emerge each year, there is still much too much dull or flawed wine from Oregon, including bottles from established, highly visible producers who charge serious prices and should be delivering wines with more character and polish.

An observation I made last year in Issue 95 is no less true today, and especially troubling in light of the high quality of recent vintages: "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; 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." While Oregon pinot noir need not imitate Burgundy (indeed, most of Oregon's leading winemakers seem distinctly uninterested in having their wines compared to Burgundies), I do feel that the first responsibility of pinot noir, wherever it's made, should be to offer delineated, vibrant aromas and flavors. But a majority of Oregon pinots still show washed-out flavors or tart, dry finishes due to clumsy acidification or insufficiently ripe skins. Acidification is widely used almost formulaically, to bring wines to a certain finished pH, regardless of the natural balance of the raw materials. Considering the quality of the vintages since 1998, producers cannot cite difficult growing seasons as an excuse for mediocre wine.