Snow on the Coastal Range peaks, cold pouring rain in Portland, freezing temperatures in McMinnville; ahh…Thanksgiving Weekend 2022 in the Willamette Valley! Perfect weather for tasting new releases from some of Willamette Valley’s top wineries? If the weather was chilly and the wines cool to taste, the welcome by producers visited was warm and most appreciated. Thanksgiving weekend in the Willamette Valley has long been an open-house period for many a vintner to welcome guests into their winery after the rigors of harvest (which in 2022 finished just 10 days before!) and sample the fruits of the previous vintage. I had not been down to the Willamette Valley since 2018; between COVID lockdown and running a store, there was no time. An intensive work trip was mandatory to taste as many of the reportedly excellent, if scarce, 2021 wines from top producers beckoned and now arriving in stores. So, too, are the richer and truly distinctive range of Chardonnays Willamette producers have embraced and increasingly regard as their ‘signature’ white wine. At some locations, however, the 2021 Pinot Noirs (mostly) were still in barrel except for regional (i.e. Willamette Valley AVA) blends, usually the least expensive in a portfolio. The reward for their absence was tasting the richly detailed and full flavored 2019 late-release wines.
These two vintages juxtapose the traditional view of (northern) Willamette Valley climate as cool climate, late ripening, with hazardous Pacific storm autumns (caveat venditor) diluting the grapes, and the new reality instigated by climate change. This change results in more frequent spring frosts, hot summer months and earlier harvesting of very ripe fruit. What the two vintages reveal, at least at the top level, is how well producers are adapting to the new ‘normal’ warmer conditions. By changing canopy management to induce more shading, using earlier ripening clones, and often doing earlier pruning, these vintages yielded wines still show-casing a cooler, elegant, but rich distinctly Oregonian style.
In between 2019 and 2021, the ogre in the room is the ill-fated 2020 vintage. Massive fires in the Pacific Northwest around the Willamette Valley in late summer and nearby brought deadly smoke, loss of property and lives into NW Oregon and the Willamette Valley. If you didn’t harvest by around September 10th, smoke taint in the grapes and wines was virtually a foregone result. Few producers made Pinot Noir beyond the basic level and then only from earlier-harvested fruit in the up-to-that-point warm, promising season. Fortunately, there was a reasonable crop of fine Chardonnays and other white grapes made in 2020, so not a complete loss. Still, a year without much to sell is a sobering experience, even for the wealthiest grower/producer. Hence, many producers I believe wisely dialed in later release dates on some 2019 wines to have wine in the pipeline, while waiting on the promising 2021’s to be bottled and shipped a bit sooner. Necessity is the mother of cash-flow. Two fine, contrasting vintages are aces-in-the-hole optimizing a bad situation.
Vintage 2019 had a moderate spring, no frost, then a fine sunny summer with only one heat event and NO fires! As Jim Anderson of Patricia Green Cellars (more PN’s made than anyone else!) noted, “We were scheduled for another early harvest [which I should probably just stop saying as every harvest since 2012 has been an early harvest by historical standards]. But then came a not atypical rainy couple of weeks at the end of August into September [which] stalled the ripening process.” The beauty of this delay allowed the grapes to continue maturation under cooler and sunny conditions into October, producing a superlative crop of ripe, rich but well-balanced, savory and moderate alcohol wines that benefited from the previous summer warmth. They have power, but without the sometimes-baked warm compote fruit of 2016-2018.
If 2019 was a year of overall moderate, historically typical weather incidents, then 2021 was a year for the record books. While the spring period saw less rain than normal, there were only isolated frost issues, but drought conditions continued. There was significant rain, according to Jason Lett at Eyrie Vineyards, around flowering in mid-June, which had the effect of lowering potential yields by about 25% from normal. But the major event was a ferocious Sahara Desert-like heat dome over much of the PNW in late June, with temperatures reaching well over 110°F. for three days, preceded by a lesser heat wave earlier in the month; the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the Willamette Valley-hotter than Bagdad in the moment!
Fortunately, the heat dome arrived after set but while berries were still green. Here’s where the advantages of older vines with deeper roots became evident, as the vines shut down. Fortunately, the rest of the summer saw more reasonable warmth. Unfortunately, no rain fell until early September, putting particular stress on younger vines with shallower root systems. The vines really needed that moisture to kick start their metabolism, as sugars were still relatively low by that time. The combination of late rain, and clear sunny weather resulted in a now normal mid-September harvest of beautiful Pinot Noir, with moderate alcohol, firm acidity and deep fruit flavors without excess. Ultimately, the fine quality and equitable balance of the 2021 Pinots (and occasional Gamay and Syrah) reveals a truism–it’s better to have early season high heat than later, and moderate rainfall in late August, early September to ‘unblock’ the metabolic system of the vine in a warming climate.
As for the wines, over four days I tasted current and new releases from approximate 20 wineries, including many that I deem bell-weather producers, such as Cristom, Patricia Green Cellars, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Elk Cove, as well as newer notable ones like Resonance Vineyards, Lingua Franca and Evening Land. My sense: 2021 has consistent high quality and 2019 as well, if more powerful, and ready to drink a few years earlier. And don’t be shocked if you note that prices are up—the lack of a 2020 vintage to sell and skyrocketing farming costs have to be accounted for. Indeed, I am surprised that prices at many cellars are not higher yet.
A primary question I asked myself while tasting all of the wines was how well these two vintages, both high quality but different in profile, provided manifest appellation differences in style. For reference, Patricia Green Cellars makes and bottles about 30 different Pinot Noirs, over a range of 6-8 AVAs within the greater Willamette Valley. For his Pinots, owner/winemaker Jim Anderson follows similar protocols (ambient ferments, 30-50% whole clusters, older vines primarily from vineyards with high percentage of the ‘historic’ Pommard clone, 20-40% new French oak barrels for maturation, all with the goal of respecting and reflecting the ‘terroir’ of the site and maintaining moderate alcohol levels. There are exceptions of course.
My notes for these two vintages indicate that given the early summer heat spikes and overall lack of rainfall except for short rain spells in August 2019 and September 2021, combined with the cooler, sunny September and October, these vintages provided near ideal conditions for showcasing the fresh, savory and fruity nature of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. These wines, from Anderson, et al, don’t show the overripe, near plummy, cooked character of truly warm cycle years like 2003, 2006 or 2017. Neither are they skinny, too leathery and with drying tannins like some uneven, or cooler years like 2007 and 2013.
Thus, wines from predominantly volcanic red Jory soils in the Dundee Hills like the 2021 Patricia Green Balcombe 1b Block Vineyard precisely reflects the strong dark cherry, almost earthy, sweet baking spice and moderately firm tannins that Pommard yields on this terroir. By contrast, the cooler 2021 Freedom Hill Vineyard Pommard Clone Willamette Valley, grown on marine sediment Bellpine soils, offers some of that same dark cherry note, but also darker berry, loamy (earthy) cedary notes usually seen in Pinots grown on sedimentary soils (cf. the Willakenzie soils of Ribbon Ridge) and rather firmer tannins.
These two examples serve only to note that we found the typical aromatic and flavor profiles of most of the producers’ wines to correlate with our previous expectations for wines from the respective AVA’s. There are exceptions, but we noted that overall, the wines grown on predominately sedimentary soils revealed darker berry notes, often firmer tannins and more ‘mineral’ notes, leaning towards a Côte de Nuits density. In contrast, those wines from Jory or Nekia volcanic soils reflected the sweeter, baking spice, dark cherry, softer tannins and even sandalwood character of a Côte de Beaune Bourgogne. Certainly, the quality and style of the two vintages, especially the more ‘pure’ freshness of 2021, appears to showcase AVA differences as I have thought of them over the past few decades. Below are notes on a small number of outstanding wines that highlight the excellence of these vintages.
The International Wine Review (IWR) hopes to provide later this year an updated and expanded report on Oregon wines, in a follow up to its previous report, Oregon Pinot Noir. The new report will provide readers an in-depth assessment of Oregon wine and a comprehensive selection of winery profiles and tasting notes.
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Pinot Noir Freedom Hill Vineyard Pommard Clone Willamette Valley ($48) 95+ Planted in 1982 on marine sedimentary Bellpine soils at 350-600? altitude. Dark ruby with very dark core. Earthy, dark cherry bouquet with loamy, cedar aromas and a hint of blueberry. Firm, tensile palate with “kernelly” dark black fruit flavors and full tannins. Very focused Cote de Nuits style. Muscular and dense with good aging potential. Drink now-2030+ 40% whole cluster ferment with 2-3 day cold soak, 2 plus weeks cuvaison, followed by 37% new French oak aging for about 11 months. pH 3.52, 13.2% alc.
Lavinea Winery 2019 Pinot Noir Temperance Hill Vineyard Eola Amity Hills ($75) 93 Deep ruby, even some violet. Lovely, very floral-violet currant/gamey/smoky bouquet. Darker, Morey St Denis style. Strong, ripe, earthy, black fruit and anise flavors with firm tannins and good acidity. This has a meaty, very strong blackberry finish. Definitely a Côtes de Nuits style. Mainly Pommard clone, some Dijon as well, planted on mostly Nekia, Rittner, Jory volcanic soils. Now-2030+ 13.5% alc.
Lingua Franca 2019 Pinot Noir The Plow Eola Amity Hills ($65) 94+ Darker ruby, tinge violet color. Denser, black fruit aromas/flavors with evident blackberry, mint and resiny-savory accents. Elegant but rich, very mineral-inflected mid-palate; firm but not hard tannins, quite typical of Clone 777, and showing real extract density and length. Volnay/Pommard 1er Cru richness. Excellent. Sourced from clone 777 planted on a parcel in the right corner of the upper vineyard section with Gelderman/Jory soils. 18% whole cluster with ambient ferment and aged 12 months in 23% new French oak barriques. Now-2030+ 13% alc.
Elk Cove Wines 2021 Pinot Noir Mount Richmond Vineyard Yamhill Carlton ($60) 93+ Dark black raspberry, savory bouquet with bitter chocolate accents. Full, soft velvet-like texture with rich kirsch liqueur sweet fruit, solid tannins and good acidity. Elegant but fleshy with excellent depth and age-ability. Sourced from vines planted in 1996, mostly Pommard clone, Dijon, too, grown on Willakenzie soils and partially own-rooted. Matured 10 months in 25% new French oak barrels. Now-2030. pH 3.51, 13.5% alc.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2019 Pinot Noir Lauréne Dundee Hills ($75) 94 Darker ruby with violet tinge than above. With some aeration, strong sour cherry, earthy, concentrated dark flavors with tannins turning more velvety. Cote de Nuits-like. It strikes me as much denser than other recent vintages of this wine. Very strong character. Really excellent. Now-2030+ 13.9% alc.
Elk Cove Wines 2021 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($30) 91 Dense ruby, with violet reflex. Spicy, black raspberry floral nose and some savory notes, with slight resin, vanilla oak as well (aged 20-25% new French oak barrels for about 8 months). Fleshy with broad flavors and lots of black fruit, moderate spiciness and soft acidity. Stylish, rich and balanced. Mainly from Mt Richmond Vineyard on Willakenzie marine sediments and Laurelwood sediments. Great value. Now-2027 13.5% alc.
These wines were reviewed and article written by Associate Editor, Joel Butler MW
Source : https://i-winereview.com/blog/index.php/2023/03/05/willamette-valley-update-the-stylish-2021-vintage-and-late-release-2019s/