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Vintage 2003


Bergstrom's Barrel Cellar, January 2004

Part 2- "A Tale of Two Wineries- Creating Symmetry out of Inbalance"
by Cole Danehower

Tasting through the barrels of some of the most expensive and sought after Pinot noir wines in the country is proof of how skillful Oregon’s winemakers have become. In a vintage so riddled with opportunities for disaster, surprisingly wonderful wines are being crafted.

To a good degree this is due to the overall flavor qualities of the grapes produced in 2003. Despite the issues of imbalance, the actual flavor characteristics of the grapes were excellent. Michael Etzel, partner and winemaker at Beaux Fréres, summed up the view of many winemakers during the harvest when he commented that the fruit possessed “intense and sweet flavors, round and sweet tannins, big aromas, and scary black color in the fermenters.”

But to an equally important degree the early quality of the 2003 wines can be attributed to the right winemaking choices.

In their attempts to compensate for the nature of “what the grapes gave us,” it was either tempting or required to add acid, as well as to work hard to keep the alcohol levels down and tannins restrained. The wrong decisions could easily have produced wines with excessive extraction, overpowering alcohol, inordinate concentration, and unreasonable tannins.

Barrels waiting for Wine,
Patricia Green Cellars, October 2003

Given the advantage of great flavors, the challenge for producers in 2003 was primarily one of making the right winemaking decisions to allow the fruit character to be fully realized in a balanced wine. In 2003, the most successful winemakers found ways to create symmetry between fruit, tannin, and acid out of the imbalance that nature delivered.

The wines in barrel at Patricia Green Cellars and Brick House Vineyards amply illustrate the quality potential of the 2003 vintage.

Located in the Ribbon Ridge region of Yamhill County in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley appellation, these two cellars share similar, sedimentary estate soils. But while each takes a different approach to their wines, the two wineries also share a commitment to small production, hand crafted production, and quality focused on bringing out both the vintage character and the natural terroir of the sites.

The wines in barrel at the cellars of Patty Green and Doug Tunnel displayed none of the issues that might be expected from the 2003 vintage. There were no wines weak with dilution, sharp with acidulation, or burning with alcohol—no hard elbows, bulging cheeks, or gangly limbs.

Patricia Green Cellars - 2003 Vintage Barrel Tasting

If there were but a single word to describe the 2003 wines in Patty Green’s twin barrel roms it would be “focused.” In a vintage that will doubtless become notable for its concentration, Patty’s wines seem to possess a clarity of focus that embodies the essence of each terroir from which she makes wines.

Patty, and her business associate Jim Anderson make wine from a variety of Willamette Valley sources, encompassing the two primary soil types in the region: sedimentary and volcanic. Tasting multiple blocks from the Eason, Balcombe, Goldschmidt, Anden, Whistling Ridge, and Estate Vineyards sowed the range of flavors from these two broad soil regions. In each case the wines offered a sense of purity and focus: unsullied flavors, uniformly taught structure, punchy aromatics, and luxuriant finishes.

The so-called Red Hills of Dundee vineyards are composed primarily of volcanic soils (typified by the Jory soil series) and are famous for producing wines with strong red fruit characters, hints of flowers and a tart minerality. Vineyards located on sedimentary soil (typified by the WillaKenzie soil series) tend to have darker fruit notes, offer more spice, and are generally more brawny. All of these characteristics were shown to true type in Patty’s 2003 samples.

Patricia Green in her Estate Vineyard

The 2003 Eason blocks possesses a wonderful combination of flowers and earth that showcase the Red Hills character quite clearly. Ripe stems in 2003 led Patty to add a goodly percentage of whole clusters to the fermentation in some lots, resulting in a somewhat rounder and more grounded style, with somewhat more forward aromatics than the non-whole cluster ferments.

The blocks from the Balcombe Vineyard, located near to Eason but at a higher altitude, offer a slightly deeper and darker version of the Red Hills style. Intense cherry flavors are complemented by notes of blackberry pie and subtle hints of dark chocolate. The wine seems to have a little broader character and a tad more body than the Eason, while still possessing the trademark Red Hills fruitiness and elegance.

The Estate Vineyard of Patricia Green Cellars particularly seems to typify the character of Pinot noir grown on sedimentary soils. Located on a spur of pure marine sediment along the Ribbon Ridge (a small and geographically distinct region that has applied for AVA status), the Estate samples display plush and brambly black raspberry and blackberry fruits, complemented by balanced and subtley chalky tannins.

Though there are a profusion of wonderfully named blocks from the Estate vineyard, including Hallelujah, RuPaul, Pumphouse, and West Etzel Blocks, it was the Old Block (planted in 1984) that seemed most true to type for the terroir. A wonderfully full and fruity nose of dark cherries and plums mixed with wildflower potpourri is followed by fruit sweet flavors of black cherries and blackberries, with ancillary notes of vanilla bean, burnt brown sugar, and brambly underbrush. The subtle sense of minerals and spice in the sedimentary-soil wines contrasts beautifully with the rich and dark fruit core.

Interestingly, none of the wines tasted felt “hot.” In fact, the relatively high alcohol levels seemed to translate into a richer and more velvety texture then into a big and warm character. All the wines were remarkably well balanced for what could be expected from the vintage. Uniformly, the flavors were all quite clear and seemed unusually distinct; it was easy to delineate each flavor component, almost as if they unfolded one after another in the mouth.

Brick House Vineyard

Brick House's Winery

Just down the road a piece from Patricia Green Cellars is Doug Tunnell’s organically farmed Brick House Vineyard. While Patty produces wines from a variety of locations, Doug focuses on bringing out the native terroir of his Ribbon Ridge plantings.

His 2003 Chardonnay demonstrated that white wines also seem to have fared will in the hot 2003 vintage. In the past, many of Doug’s Chardonnays were styled big and rich, but also a little heavy and slightly woody. In 2001, however, the Brick House Chardonnay took a different stylistic turn, achieving a cool fruity crispness that elevated the wine into one of the best of Oregon’s new generation of Chardonnays. Judging by the ’03 sample, Brick House’s Chardonnay wine has achieved a new consistency of style.

The wine had a bright and sweetly fruity aroma, matched by an immediately fulfilling and lively fruitiness in the mouth. The citrus flavors were appropriately crisp (though, it must also be said, a little muted at this stage) and they were married elegantly to a fresh, grassy element that gave the whole a light and vibrant feel.

Brick House Winery's Estate Vineyard

Light and fresh also seemed to be good descriptors for the majority of the Pinot noir lots sampled. Organized to move along the various blocks in Doug’s vineyards, the individual barrel samples (starting with the first block picked, from the most exposed ridge site with thin top soils, to the lower blocks sitting on deeper and richer soils) displayed a remarkable combination of individuality on the one hand, and a uniform balanced “prettiness.”

In this case “pretty” is not used as a diplomatic adjective, but rather as an accurate depiction of the character of the wines. Though the samples certainly varied in many ways, what showed through consistently was a light florality: a feeling of high-toned and fresh red fruits infused with flower petal softness—pretty in a way quite distinct from Patty’s wines.

Brick House winemaker Doug Tunnell

Somehow in this vintage of huge concentration and alcohol, Doug Tunnell’s wines seemed possessed of an unexpected lightness. Even in the most intensely concentrated blocks, which displayed tighter tannins and a deep sense of earth, along with licorice finishes and what might be styled “burly,” what nevertheless shone through was a consistent sense of freshness and balance.

Despite the undeniable pleasures of Patty’s Pinots, they distinctly showed some of the intense characteristics of the ’03 vintage. Doug’s Pinots, by contrast, seemed to bring out the more elegant flavors of the vintage, as seen in these notes from various blocks: “candied violets,” “big and forwardly fruity with deep blackberry and black cherry but with a fresh earth feel,” “broad cherry flavors capped with anise and roses,” and “sweet candied grape flavors.”

The other characteristic that was impressive about the Brick House wines was their sense of balance. While definitely capturing firmly fruity flavors, Doug’s wines never seemed to veer off to one end or another. Though each block had its own character (the final bottlings will be composed of blends of selected barrels), tannins were well balanced to the intensity of the fruit, which was in turn balanced by the degree of acidity—an important accomplishment given the challenges of the vintage!

Winemaking Wins the Day

Of course, two cellars do not a vintage make. But finding two cellars consistently filled with exciting wines from a vintage that posed dramatic challenges indicates that one key to the success of 2003 in Oregon is the winemaking skills we possess. Even though more than one winemaker confided that at many times during the harvest they weren’t quite sure what to do next, early barrel tastes indicate that the combination of knowledge, experience, and “gut” may have combined to maximize the potential of the vintage for consumers.


Vintage 2003

Part 1-
"What the Grapes
Gave us"

Part 2 -
A Tale of two Cellars- Creating Symmetry
out of Inbalance


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by Andy Perdue,
Wine Press NW

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by Anna King,
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Patricia Green Cellars

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