Monday, February 2, 2015

One of the ULTIMATE QUESTIONS: CAN OREGON PINOT NOIR AGE?

Friends, as you know, this is an important question. I've been a wine retailer for eight years now, and approximately 400 of you over that time have bought far more SE Washington wines from me, and other wines (many from Spain and Italy, which easily win the QPR (quality-to-price ratio) contest), compared to our Oregon Pinots. I think for most of you, it's either about the taste, the flavor profile, or the cost, of that wine, and/or you have been frustrated with what you perceive as these traits of Oregon Pinots:

1. They can be inconsistent from bottle to bottle;
2. They mutate, over time, more than any other grape I've known, whipsawing the poor wine lover into fear and indecision;
3. The French like to say (as they have told me, in Burgundy), that Oregon Pinots are good while young but "do they age?"; and
4. They are pretty darn expensive.

Despite all that, you have to admit, as I freely do, that, at their best, they are some of the best wines in the world. And Oregon Pinot is "Portland's Wine," and deserves our attention for that reason also.

I have had an aged Echezeaux (grown next to DRC), sold from under the table to me at a great restaurant in Dijon, and held for a few years, and, when finally opened, it was very good but not as good as the best Oregon Pinots I've had, from the likes of J.K. Carierre, Anderson Family Vineyards, Beaux Freres, Adelsheim, and Domaines Drouhin and Serene (and others; not trying to make an exclusive list here).

Fast forward to J. K. Carriere. Jim Prosser built his winery a few years ago, uphill from Harry's Chehalem landmark; before that, Jim was in the barn at a B&B with a hazelnut orchard near Newberg (with a really cool representation of a viking longboat in the attic). I first learned about Jim when Cliff Anderson, my first (and best) mentor in Willamette Valley grapegrowing and winemaking, sold fruit to him, so I went to taste Jim's wines, and like Cliff, Jim was a real artist. He had some older bottles open for special customers. I wheedled a taste of his 1999 Pinot, and I'm sure glad I did--it was unbelievably great--truly outstanding in about 2004, and it cemented in me an opinion that Jim knew how to make ageworthy Pinots (because that '99 seemed built to last).

Fast forward to 2015. We're selling our city house (having moved to a farm near Woodland WA), and I'm selling some wines at auction, because our new home's cellar (and house) are smaller and we have too much wine. I have been holding a 2002 J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir with a note on the neck saying simply, "Purchased Sept 2004: Keep til 2010; drink by 2020."

If you're paying attention, and if you understand the discussions about Oregon Pinots, you will be wondering, "Can a good Oregon Pinot really last 13 years?" If you really understand Oregon Pinots, you'll know that 2002 was a special year: very good conditions for the fruit, and likely to age well. So, this bottle presented a fair test.

Life with Oregon Pinot Noirs is all about data points, like taking snapshots of a running cheetah. You can talk about the snapshots, but you cannot make too many sweeping conclusions about the "movie," because the data is too varied. Unlike Christophe Baron's marvelous, inexplicably-high pH Syrahs from The Rocks vineyard, which establish their nature early on, and then hold it, only refining and tweaking their upscale flavor profile, the best Oregon Pinots have this mystique in which we don't really know how they will evolve, or whether they will be so subtle that we miss the point, and we don't often know what we'll get when we pull the bottle out. Sometimes, the wines go dumb and just shut down for a while. Enjoying Oregon Pinots takes WORK and a willingness to take risks. It's also an expensive habit, especially when not every bottle is what you hoped for. A good Oregon Pinot is a will-o-the-wisp. You pull the cork and you ask, "what have we here?" and even if you drank its sister yesterday, today its sister may be different. Warmer summers are not necessarily a friend of Pinot Noir, either, though Gamay and Syrah may be creeping northwards. Pinot in Bellingham, anyone? So, even how Pinot grows here is changing.

So, the '02 J.K. Carriere. It was a fascinating bottle to open tonight (with a gorgeous Steelhead, roasted simply with just lemon, salt, and pepper). The first thing I noticed, AT THIRTEEN YEARS OF AGE, was the vibrancy of youthfulness--deep purple color and pleasant purple fruits in the nose.  Game over. A wine past its prime cannot, will not, look young. Without any delay or decant, this wine was energetic and ready to go--first sip was delightful. It didn't change much in the glass, but stayed faithful for a good hour or so: Wonderfully balanced, smooth, just subdued enough to support the food without clamoring for attention, and yet so elegant that through some sense of feigned shyness it drew attention to its excellence. Wow! This bottle, a snapshot in time, was pretty high up on the Pinot Noir quality scale. Vibrant purple fruits! Smoothness! A good finish! It referred not to other wines; it made its own statement. In its way, in its time tonight, it was perfect.

And chalk up one data point for Oregon's excellence in ageworthiness. Say that Oregon Pinots are too spendy (correct). Say that Pinot Noir can be unpredictable or inconsistent (correct). Say that too many wine lovers don't understand or appreciate good Pinot (correct).  Say that California Pinots are quite different (correct, and many prefer them to Oregon Pinots). But tonight, this Pinot was perfect. I just wish I had more of them. If more of them would be like this ;)