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
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.