Willamette 2014: The Juggernaut Vintage

willamettevalleyHere come the 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, starting with two outstanding values from Patricia Green.

We sell a lot of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, probably more than just about anyone else in the area. In the 10 years I’ve worked here, we’ve journeyed together through vintages warm (2006, 2009), cool (2010, 2011), confusing (2007, 2013), and highly acclaimed (2008, 2012). But none of the past vintages prepared us for the gloriously ripe yet sublimely elegant Pinot Noirs coming from 2014. The wines are delicious now, will go longer than average in cellar, and – in a rare twist – are much more available than usual.

No New World wine region sees more year-to-year vintage variation than Oregon’s Willamette Valley. And, I’d argue that’s a good thing! It’s been well over a decade since the Willamette Valley had a “bad” year for Pinot Noir, and farming and winemaking keeps getting better and better – so the wines are always of very high quality.

But with very different weather from year to year, Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs are unique among New World wines in how they showcase differences in vineyard and vintage conditions. And the conditions of Oregon’s 2014 vintage were nothing if not unique!

A Couple of 2014 Puzzles
First puzzle: how could 2014 be Oregon’s warmest growing season ever even though it never got super hot? Yes, there were nearly 30 days of 90 degree or higher daytime temperatures, but nothing like the weeks of 100+ seen in 2009 or the hot drought of 2006. But, 2014’s nights were much warmer than usual. Normally, cool nights bring ripening to a halt and stretch out the time between fruit set in the spring and harvest in the fall. In 2014, the vines kept on chugging away all night long, meaning that growers spent all summer worried that berries would ripen too soon, before complex flavors could develop.

Second puzzle: how could having much bigger crop loads than usual be the key to high quality? Normally, Oregon growers try to limit their vines to about 2 tons of fruit per acre, cutting off excess grapes during the season to ensure that vines have enough energy to fully ripen the remaining fruit by harvest time.

In 2014, the season opened with a huge fruit set, giving some vineyards a potential crop of 4-5 tons per acre. As the warm season saw vines try to speed ripening along too fast, smart farmers decided that giving the vines more work to do than usual might help slow things down. So, instead of dropping half or more than half of the large fruit set, they kept 20-40% more grapes per vine hanging. Everyone assumed that ripening would slow as the weather cooled in September and that the extra fruit could be cut off then.

The good news: hanging more fruit did slow down ripening enough to let 2014 Pinot Noir develop plenty of flavor, generate silky sweet and ripe tannins, and avoid amassing too much alcohol. The better news: pretty much all of the fruit got all the way ripe, even the portion growers had planned to cut off!

The only bad news: with yields 20-40% higher than normal and almost no grapes eliminated during sorting, winemakers went crazy trying to figure out where to put everything!

2014 Power, Elegance, and Charm
So, after all of that, what should you expect from 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? In a word, “Yumminess.” As Oregon’s Ken Wright said in describing the vintage:

“2014 provided an abundance of perfectly ripe Pinot Noir. The wine exhibits great depth of color, intense and complex aroma and flavor. The textural profile is lush and balanced. Very beautiful … very fun!”

And, Oregon winemaker Patty Green’s partner, Jim Anderson, summed things up nicely as well:

“The wines in general do not taste like they are from a warm vintage, they are not big wines for the most part, they are by and large graceful, aromatic, nuanced and deeply complex wines. They are in great condition and our feeling is that they are going to be long lived and very serious wines that will happen to provide early term pleasure and satisfy both the hard core Pinot Noir drinker and those that are more casual with their varietal allegiances.”

I’ve tasted about 40 of the 2014s so far including finished wines and pre-bottling samples in Oregon last month, and my conclusions are similar. There is an immediate deliciousness to almost all the 2014s that captures your attention right out of the gate and can all too easily lead to uncritical glugging. You should try to avoid that, however, as there is more going on in these generous wines than you first realize. By all means, drink ’em young anytime you’d like a delicious, silky smooth, mouthfilling Pinot Noir by itself or with any Pinot-friendly food. But do try to give a few bottles some cellar time and watch how they get more complex and layered, even as they stay friendly and, well, yummy!

I’m not sure whether any Oregon winemakers would agree with me, but I find the 2014s to be a lovely cross between 2012’s ripeness and depth and 2010’s purity and elegance. If you want to have to work to enjoy a wine, then 2014 Willamette Pinot is probably not for you. Fine – that leaves more for the rest of us!

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