Adventures in Vintage in Willamette Valley

Vista Hills Pinot GlassFew wine regions in the United States see more variation in vintage conditions than Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and two wines from Oregon’s Vista Hills EstateĀ give you a chance to compare two very different years: 2012 and 2013. While one is widely considered “better” than the other, you may be surprised by which you prefer!

Willamette Valley’s 2012 vintage is either the greatest Oregon Pinot Noir harvest of all time or tied with 2008 for that honor – depending on who you ask.

Poor weather during flowering kept yields low, but after that the Valley saw sunshine and moderate temperatures right through the end of October. Almost every wine is a success, with higher than average levels of density and sweet fruit but plenty of balancing minerality and freshness, too. Unlike the 2008s, the 2012s are mostly delicious to drink right now and have the stuffing and structure to develop further in cellar for years to come.

From a Great 2012 to a Rollercoaster 2013
Vintage 2013 was a wild rollercoaster ride. The vines got going early and plenty of summer sun and heat had growers worried that the harvest would come too early, before the grapes had time to develop deep, complex, flavors. Cooler weather in September slowed things down a bit, but as harvest began during early September in earlier-ripening sites, many worried that 2013 would turn out like 2009 – a year of dense, very ripe (sometimes overripe), wines that would tend towards heaviness and brown flavors.

Then came the storm. In late September, the remnants of Typhoon Pabuk blew in from the Pacific and dropped 4-9 inches of rain on Oregon’s vineyards over a single, sodden, weekend. Some growers rushed to harvest all the Pinot they could before the rains arrived. Many of these wines ended up pretty and plump but often lack complexity and can show green notes or hard tannins from under ripeness.

Some growers had no choice but to harvest immediately after the rain as the ripe grapes swelled from the unexpected dose of water and burst, allowing rot to run rampant through the vineyards. Many of these wines ended up thin and diluted from the extra water (although some, mainly Ken Wright, were able to use concentrators to remove the excess water).

Others were able to let the water quickly flow out of their loose, free-draining soils and wait a week or two for the vines to first absorb and then work out out the extra moisture. These are some of the very best 2013s, with plenty of warm harvest richness but also fine purity and verve and supple, ripe, tannins to provide the right touch of support. This is the case, for example, with wines from the Vista Hills estate.

It’s All About the Dirt
The folks at Vista Hills managed to excel in both the “easy” 2012 vintage and the much tougher 2013 harvest. While the winemaking both years is clearly solid, the real secret to their success is a great vineyard site. John and Nancy McClintock’s 42 acres of vines are nestled in the center of what may be the Willamette Valley’s best sub-region, the Dundee Hills. Like neighbors Domaine Serene and Domaine Drouhin, their vineyard is planted on Jory soils.

What are Jory soils? They started out as volcanic rock – mainly basalt – deposited across what are now the Dundee Hills long, long, ago. As the basalt weathered and decomposed, it mixed with iron-rich clay and ancient ocean silt. The result is a loosely packed, nutrient-rich, soil that retains limited amounts of water easily but freely drains when dumped on by heavy rain storms. In flat, lowland, locations, it’s easy to grow most anything in Jory soil. On hillsides where water drains more quickly, though, they make a perfect home for any grape called “Pinot.”

The state of Oregon named Jory the “Official State Soil” a few years ago, and Jory is what makes wines from the Dundee Hills so unique. Pinot Noir grown on Jory soils usually shows bright cherry and red berry fruit with a good dose of dusty earthiness. And, minerality – a sense of crushed stone and iron that you can smell and taste in the Dundee Hills best Pinot Noirs and in top Pinot Gris too.

You’ll find the character of Dundee Hills Jory soils and of the distinctive 2012 and 2013 vintages in two Vintage Hills Pinot Noirs and also in the juicy fresh Vista Hill Pinot Gris, too. The 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot (called “Fourmen” until this vintage) is clearly the winner for drinking right now, with a wonderful generosity and richness balanced by tangy cranberry and citrusy acids. The 2012 Treehouse Estate, Vista Hills’ top wine, is more dense, dark, and driving and is fun to taste now but will really shine from 2017 on.

Vista Hills