A Look at Willamette Valley Pinot Vintages

willamettevalleyThere are places in the world where vintage doesn’t matter – or at least, where most vintages are fairly similar and differences can be slight and hard to taste in your glass. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is not one of those places! No other top American wine region sees so much variation year-to-year in temperature, rainfall, crop loads, and timing. And, of course, no red grape more clearly reflects its place and growing season than the Willamette Valley’s signature vine, Pinot Noir.

I first got acquainted with Oregon Pinot Noir through the 2006s and I’ve had the pleasure to learn about every vintage since through extensive tasting and in-depth conversation with winemakers up and down the Willamette Valley. Here’s a quick summary of what to expect from harvests 2006 – 2016:

2006 – A hot, ripe, rich year that Wine Spectator rated 92 points overall and Wine Advocate 91 points. Many winemakers didn’t love the vintage, thinking the wines were too ripe, rich and lush. And there certainly are some wines that show dried, pruney flavors or under-ripe tannins that are sticking out now. I liked many 2006s on release and have been impressed by the dozen or so I’ve had over the past couple of years. Few are refined, but sites that usually deliver good structure and/or winemakers using whole clusters made wines that are holding up nicely in a fleshy, generous style.

2007 – A really challenging year that has turned out more good wines than anyone would have expected tasting right after the harvest. Cool, rainy weather early in the season set up disease pressure right away, especially given the large crop that set. A warm season had growers pretty excited, but waves of rain crossed the valley in September and October. Growers tried to pick between the bands of rain, but the wines they made felt light and even thin on release. Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate rated the vintage 84 points. But tasting the 2007s in the summer of 2013, it became obvious that the best wines are picking up weight and showing plenty of flavor. I’m skeptical many are going to get better, but there’s lots of pleasure to be had right now.

2008 – The first consensus “great vintage” of the past decade, a year Spectator rated 96 and Advocate 94. Spring was late and cool, summer was cool, but the sun came out in early September and stayed out until well after all the grapes were bubbling away. The critical praise and fleshy, even weighty, character of many wines made this a breakthrough vintage in terms of consumer awareness and demand for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. I was impressed … but 10 years on, I’m less sure. Like Burgundy 2005 and Bordeaux 2000 and Barolo 2006, these wines are slow to open up and overall don’t show as much delineation and complexity as I wish they did. Perhaps it’s just too soon.

2009 – I can’t for the life of me understand why 2009 gets such a bum rap. It was warmer than 2008 and the wines were fleshier, full of riper flavors, and came in with a bit more alcohol. But the year is divisive, with the Spectator offering a tepid 90-point assessment (“Supple structures, bold flavors”) and the Advocate 86 points. True, if your ideal of Pinot Noir is a high acid, fresh, firmly structured wine that can live for years in cellar, then 2009 is not for you. But if you want a great tasting bottle of wine you can share with folks who aren’t Pinot-fiends, 2009 punches your ticket quite well. Some are at or even a bit past peak. But wineries that use whole-cluster fermentation to add spice and structure or wines from sites that give a lot of structure will keep on shining for a while yet.

2010 – The first in a pair of extremely cool vintages that produced extreme challenges for growers and winemakers. But both 2010 and 2011 delivered some absolutely amazing wines for fans of more elegant, nuanced, and perfumed Pinot. The combination of a warm winter (meaning an early start), hot mid-summer, and cool late-season meant that growers had to drop a lot of fruit to get ripeness. And, just as the fruit was getting really tasty, huge flocks of migratory birds flew through Oregon, noticed the sweet fruit, and decided to hang out for a while. Stories of growers sleeping in the vineyards so they could wake up and fire shotguns to scare off the birds abound. Still, this was the smallest harvest since 2005. The wines are stellar (WS rates the vintage 94 points while WA comes in at a head-scratching 88). Alcohols are low, fruit flavors well developed, and there’s plenty of acid and tannin to support aging. This is many winemakers’ and professionals’ favorite vintage of this sequence.

2011 – After a cloudy, cool (even cold) growing season when both sunshine and warmth were in short supply  and after dropping half (or more!) of the small crop that set in the spring, many Willamette Valley winegrowers stood in their vineyards in early September thinking, “Well, at least I won’t have to pay a harvest crew this year – because there’s not going to be anything ripe enough to pick!” Then the sun came out and, while it never got really warm, it also didn’t get cold right on through November. This is the lightest colored, lowest-alcohol, and highest acid vintage of this set. The wines were tart (or even sour) on release, but if you paid attention, you could see the brilliantly tangy fruit hiding down deep. I love this vintage, but the better wines are still not ready. At age 10, though, they are going to be simply stunning. An 85 point vintage per Wine Spectator; 90 from the Advocate (whose Oregon reviewer at the time also covers German Riesling – which should give you an idea about what this harvest is all about).

2012 – Easy to sum up 2012: the most perfect growing season ever in the Willamette Valley. The sun shone when it was supposed to, it got just hot enough and then just cool enough, and then it didn’t start to rain until long after all the plump and pleasing grapes were bubbling away in wineries. A Wine Spectator 97 point harvest, highest ever. (Only a 92 in the Advocate, whose then new reviewer seems to have been expecting Oregon Pinot to taste like Burgundy. It doesn’t.) The wines are rich, generous, and yet structured and vibrant enough to taste site and show some elegance. And they’ve stayed pretty open, so you can try them when you like. The only quibble – are the textures a touch too smooth and silky and the tannins a tad too soft?

2013 – Two words: Typhoon Pabuck. A year that was shaping up as another 2012 was drawing to a close. Grapes up and down the valley were plumping, ripening, and just about ready to pick. And then remnants of Asian Typhoon Pabuck surged ashore and dropped 7-12 inches of rain over three days. Some winemakers managed to pick right before the storm, while others waited for the vines and mud to dry and picked three or so weeks later. In general, the wines picked later are better, but all are light- to medium-weight wines with more red fruit than black and a bit of tang. And few have enough in the way of tannin to support long aging. A Spectator 88 and Advocate 87 point vintage, which is about right.

2014 – Why is the scorching hot 2014 vintage so much better than 2006, 2009 or 2003 before that? Learning! The vintage set a huge crop, so normally growers would have dropped 30-50% of the bunches in late summer. But growers realized that the hot, dry season was pushing the vines to develop sugars fast. So they let the extra crop hang – with more grapes, each vine had to split its sugar production up among more berries. At the end of the season, everything got ripe, so everything got picked – leaving Oregon with its largest Pinot crop ever and wineries scrambling for fermenters and barrels. Everyone treated the fruit gently (something of a necessity given the extraordinary quantity), and the wines turned out silky smooth, full of fruit, and easy to drink. Spectator loved the vintage (96 points) and Advocate liked it (92), and the wines are certainly delicious. I’m not sure most are profound, though, and some lack textural complexity and structure. Drink them young with joy.

2015 – Almost the exact same vintage as 2014 but this time wineries were ready for the bounty and had learned what gave them the most exciting barrels the previous year. So in 2015, they did more of what worked best in ’14 – which included more whole clusters, more extraction, and (in some cases) a bit more new wood. Wine Advocate hasn’t taken a position on the vintage and Spectator rates it 95 points, a hair behind 2014. That’s nuts. The 2015s we carry have fantastic textures with real grip and bite to balance the ripe, borderline opulent, fruit. It’s a great, great, vintage, one where you can try the wines whenever you like or hold them for years. My favorite vintage to date.

2016 – Plenty more wines to taste, but here’s what we know so far. After the 2015 harvest was in the winery, the weather stayed nice in November. And December. And January. It just never got cold! I remember being in the Valley in early February of 2016 – daffodils and other spring flowers popping everywhere! So the vines never went into hibernation and were raring to go when a bit of spring heat showed up. It was the earliest bud break, earliest flowering, earliest verasion (when the grapes turn color) and earliest pick (starting in August!) ever. But the harvest wasn’t rushed because the summer remained cool and the grapes ripened at a gentle pace. “Gentle,” in fact, is the word for the vintage overall. The wines are soft and supple, with fresh fruit flavors, smooth textures, good length, and inviting balance. Most will want drinking on the early side – say at 4-10 years from the vintage – and few are profound. But they are a tasty set of Pinots that add yet another chapter to the story of America’s greatest Pinot Noir region – the Willamette Valley

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