Qual­ity Time

The wine­mak­ers of one par­tic­u­lar ore­go­nian valley have been pro­duc­ing won­der­ful pinot noirs for decades, writes James Suck­ling, and a trio of ex­cel­lent re­cent vin­tages prom­ises plenty of treats

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life | Wine -

I’d al­ways wanted to visit the US state of Ore­gon but could never find the time. Wine­mak­ers in its Wil­lamette Valley, about 40 kilo­me­tres south­west of Port­land, have been pro­duc­ing ex­cel­lent pinot noir for more than three decades, and at bar­gain prices rel­a­tive to the out­stand­ing qual­ity, es­pe­cially com­pared to the likes of red Bur­gundy.

I fi­nally found the time to visit in Oc­to­ber and tasted my way through al­most 300 pinot noirs and a few dozen chardon­nays from the valley’s best pro­duc­ers. Both the reds and whites were out­stand­ing, with about 90 per cent scor­ing 90 points or more and about 12 per cent, or 36 wines, 95 points or above.

Ore­gon’s pinot noir is close in pro­file to Bur­gundy’s, and less dense and fruity than, say, those of Cal­i­for­nia or Cen­tral Otago in New Zealand. Some re­gions in south­east­ern Aus­tralia, such as Gipp­s­land, Gee­long and the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula, make sim­i­larly struc­tured pinots. The main at­trac­tion of Ore­gon pinot is its drink­a­bil­ity and bright­ness, though I also had wines from the 1980s and ’90s that were still very drink­able and un­der­lined how well they can age.

The su­perb 2014 vin­tage was re­spon­si­ble for many of the best wines. One of the hottest and dri­est years in re­cent mem­ory, it de­liv­ered one of the ear­li­est har­vests in the re­gion’s his­tory. Grapes picked in near per­fect con­di­tion pro­duced wines with a gen­er­ous rich­ness yet an un­der­ly­ing fresh­ness, wines des­tined to be huge crowd-pleasers.

Strangely, the re­ac­tion of wine­mak­ers to the vin­tage was one of slight re­gret. The Ore­go­ni­ans seem to like grap­pling with what they call “nor­mal vin­tages,” when the weather is wet and cool, es­pe­cially dur­ing the har­vest. I guess they like to fight Mother Na­ture in pur­suit of prov­ing they’re some of the most re­silient wine­mak­ers in the US, if not the world.

“Just about any­one can make an out­stand­ing wine in a vin­tage like 2014,” said Tony Soter of Soter Vine­yards. (Orig­i­nally from Ore­gon, Soter made his name in the 1980s and ’90s in the Napa Valley by es­tab­lish­ing in­sti­tu­tions like Spottswoode, Araujo and Shafer.) “But it’s a dif­fi­cult year such as 2013 that shows the best vine­yards and top wine­mak­ers.”

In­deed, 2013 was the an­tithe­sis of 2014. The grow­ing sea­son looked ex­cel­lent un­til mon­soon-like rains blew across the Pa­cific and ham­mered the re­gion half­way through the har­vest. Some es­tates did man­age to make ex­cel­lent wines, but they are the ex­cep­tion, not the rule.

By com­par­i­son, 2014 pro­duced wines with New World pu­rity of fruit and ripeness yet some­thing uniquely Ore­go­nian. “We call this char­ac­ter some­thing in­de­scrib­able,” said Soter. Wine­mak­ers say 2015 and ’16 will be very sim­i­lar in qual­ity, but per­haps a lit­tle more Ore­go­nian, with less ex­u­ber­ance than the 2014.

With a trio of su­perb con­sec­u­tive vin­tages, you can buy Ore­gon’s wines with lit­tle hes­i­ta­tion over the next few years. Most are in the US$30 to US$50 range and, with a few ex­cep­tions, even the top wines cost US$60 to US$100 a bot­tle. This is what makes Ore­gon’s wines so at­trac­tive to con­sumers, par­tic­u­larly in the US where al­most all the pro­duc­tion is sold. But it won’t be long be­fore the rest of the world catches on.

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