Thursday, September 24, 2009

Willamette Valley Vintage - 2009, Part One

Making wine begins in the vineyard as we all know, and whenever you’re dealing with mother nature life is always, pardon the lame joke, a bit like Mama Gump’s box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.  That applies in Oregon’s Willamette Valley perhaps more than any other major winegrowing region in the country.

As you might imagine, the biggest weather hazard in Oregon is rain, that’s no surprise given the state’s reputation.  But what isn’t widely known is that it basically doesn’t rain during the summer.  Average total rainfall for the months of July-September is around 2 1/4  inches.  The problem is with the months of June and October.

June rains or, worse, the occasional hail storm, can interfere with flowering and the setting of a crop of grapes, and rain early in October can cause rot, uneven ripening and splitting of the fruit, which only further encourages rot.  In 2004 and 2005, rain during the flowering period caused the vines to set ridiculously small crops and, in some isolated instances, almost no crop at all.  I remember visiting some of my friends’ wineries in the fall of 2005 and being astounded.  Most of them had two years’ worth of wine in barrels and the barrel rooms were half full at best.  It was a tough couple of years for Oregon wineries.  They had practically no wine to sell and several didn’t open for their normal holiday open houses, though most of them made it through relatively unscathed.

2006 was a savior financially, if not a success artistically – depending upon who you talk to.  The vines flowered on schedule or a little early, and the summer was warmer than normal.  What that led to was a large crop that had to be aggressively thinned and wines that were generally low in acid and high in alcohol after a harvest that was essentially devoid of rain.  After a two-year “drought”, everyone had plenty of wine to sell, but they received mixed reviews.  Most of the major professional critics loved the wines.  Most of the really geeky followers of Oregon pinot noir hated them. 

Oregon’s 2006 pinot noirs were reminiscent of everything that had become disliked in some circles about California pinot noir, “cult” pinot noir in particular, but they played right into the hands of the critics and the wineries who adhere to the “more of everything is better” theory of pinot noir.  More oak, more alcohol, more extract and more color make for better wines in that school, and the thing is, wine like that sells.

People read the reviews in the Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate and, when the “more” wines get the high scores, that style of wine is what they expect from a qualitative standpoint.  Since there are so many wine buyers who are understandably influenced by these reviews, it’s only smart business to make wines that will score well and, consequently, sell well.  The fact is that fans of a more restrained winemaking style, and I am admittedly one of them, are but a blip on the radar next to the general market for wine.  We’re a fairly substantial blip, but a blip nonetheless, and wineries could go broke fairly quickly if too many of them tried to pander to our tastes.

2007 brought about another weather change.  A cool spring set things back a couple of weeks or so, and it began to rain right about the time the fruit was hitting optimal ripeness.  Some people blinked and pulled the trigger, bringing in their fruit before the rains or between storms.  These people ended up with wines that were generally a little green and thin, though time has been kind to them.  Others waited out the rain and were rewarded when the weather cleared and the valley was bathed in sunshine and pleasant temperatures.  The last pinot noir to be picked that I know of came into the winery facilities on October 30. 

The results of a somewhat cool and wet year were predictable.  The critics, while trying to be kind, essentially damned the vintage with faint praise.  Some of us rejoiced as the wines generally show finesse and elegance with the kind of higher acidity and ripe but somewhat obvious tannins that bode well for extended cellaring, though I’ve had some wine that was delicious right now.

What about 2008, you ask?  Without going into detail, it was perfect.  I’ve tasted a few finished wines and a bunch of barrels, and what I’ve had has been really exciting and appealing to the “more” drinkers and the “finesse” drinkers at the same time.  Stay tuned for more as the wines hit the market.

And now, finally, we’ve made it to 2009.  It’s early yet.  The weather over the next 2 or 3 weeks will make or break the year, but right now it’s looking like it could be an almost-instant replay of 2006.  It’s been warm with a few days above 100 degrees and we’ve had less rain than normal.  I’ll be checking the vineyards and talking to my sources and will have a better feeling for what’s going on soon.  Until then, drink pinot noir, eat great food and be happy.

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