Ken is one of the most impressive – even formidable – winemakers I’ve ever met, and every time I talk with him, I come away astonished at how much he knows about Oregon vineyards and Pinot Noir. There’s a reason Wine Spectator put him the cover and called him “A Master of Pinot Noir in Oregon” last year.
Ken is one of the “old hands” of Oregon Pinot Noir. He founded Panther Creek winery in 1986 and made the wines there until selling the estate. He opened Ken Wright Cellars in 1993 in a converted glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, making the first two vintages of Domaine Serene’s wines in 1993 and 1994 while starting his own production. Within just a few years, Ken’s wines were the most sought-after in Oregon.
Expressing Each Site. Ken is quick to explain that, in his view, the whole purpose of Pinot Noir is to express the distinctive characteristics of each site it occupies. He was the first to start the push for creating distinct Willamette Valley AVAs and today makes a dozen different vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. As Ken says, “Ken Wright Cellars is devoted to showcasing the inherent quality of selected vineyard sites. With a clarity and breadth that is unequaled by other varieties, we believe Pinot noir best expresses the character of these sites. Rather than stamping wine with a varietal trademark, we see Pinot noir as a vehicle for conveying the aroma, flavor and texture of the location in which it is grown.”
While showcasing “terroir” is important, the wines have to taste good, too. Again and again, Ken has demonstrated his ability to make highly rated Willamette Valley Pinot Noir even in the most difficult conditions. Writing about Ken’s work in the hot 2006 vintage, Wine Spectator said, “In any Oregon vintage, you can count on Ken Wright making some of the most elegant and refined Pinot Noirs. His wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, always have finesse and tremendous polish, even in an extra ripe vintage like 2006. Where others made big, heady wines, Wright managed to keep most of his cuvées bright and juicy.”
And, talking about Ken’s wines from the challenging 2004 vintage, Robert Parker said, “There are not many Pinot Noir winemakers who can make six separate cuvees, and have five of them nearly outstanding. In fact, this exceptional success rate puts Ken Wright in the company of such Burgundy luminaries as Laurent Ponsot, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Hubert Lignier, J. J. Confuron, and Claude Dugat.”
So, when Ken gets his hands on material like he had in 2015, watch out!
Another Hot, Fine Harvest. 2015 marked the second straight year of intense heat and limited rainfall all across the Willamette Valley. Just like in 2014, the growing season started early and growers quickly became concerned that ripening would move faster than flavor development. So, once again, they left a heavy load of gapes on the vine to force sugar accumulation to be spread across more berries and did minimal hedging, leaf pulling, and trimming.
I remember walking Abbott Claim with Ken Wright in late July of 2015 and looking at his normally neat and trim vines with their shaggy, un-hedged, tops and remarkable number of bunches per vine. “Will you drop fruit before harvest?” he was asked. “If all the grapes on these vines ripen fully, I think it would be wrong, almost criminal, to leave some on the ground. And, I think they’re all going to make it all the way this year.”
Ken, of course, was right. It was a very early harvest and Ken and others brought in the largest Pinot Noir crop in Oregon history. As in 2014, the fruit was in perfect condition with virtually no disease and little in the way of sunburn or desiccation. One key difference: after the shockingly huge harvest of 2014, wineries were ready to deal with 2015’s record-setting yields by having plenty of staff, fermenters, and barrels cleaned, set up, and ready to go.
Vintage ’15: 2014 Ripeness with More Freshness and Spine. How do the 2015s compare to the 2014s? I tasted ’15s from barrel and ’14s from barrel and bottle last February at a half-dozen of our favorite wineries. Both vintages are yummy, but the ’14s clearly are more about their ripe, cheerful, fruit and are most exciting for their immediate to near-term deliciousness. As Ken said about the 2014s last year, “They’re rich, lush, lower in acidity, super agreeable already. This may not be the longest-lived vintage, but the wines are pleasurable.”
In contrast, the 2015s seem to have a touch less alcohol, a touch more acidity, and significantly more texture (whether the winemaker works with whole clusters or not). You’ll love tasting the 2015s when they arrive, especially wines’ like Ken’s where the lush fruit tends to cover and cloak the tannins. But where the 2014s will be at their best over the next 5 years or so, you’ll be pulling out and delighting in the 2015s for a decade-plus.
How good is 2015 overall? As Josh Raynolds of Vinous reported last year, “Conditions throughout 2015 were just as warm and dry as in the previous vintage and, according to growers that I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, musts are dark, aromatics are explosive, flavors are concentrated and tannins are strong.”
When Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate was in Oregon tasting 2013s, he wrote:
“There were a couple of very well-established Oregon winemakers who discretely opined that … 2015 is destined to be crowned the benchmark Oregon vintage.”
The Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steadman agrees, writing in late 2015:
“A significant percentage of the 2015s had completed fermentation by the time I visited Willamette Valley in early October. Their freshness and deftness will invite comparisons to top-tier vintages such as 2012 and 2008, once they complete their cellaring.”
Is 2015 the “best ever” vintage here? Could be – but it’s certainly a very fine vintage indeed that’s well worth your attention!