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Oregon & Washington Wine Specialists Since 1988

Pinot noir

by Jim LaMar

Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for the purpose of making wine, and is one of the most revered wines crafted today. Pinot noir is the grape of the red wines of Burgundy, and around the world, the Pinot noirs of Oregon and New Zealand are also considered world class.

Ancient Romans knew this grape as Helvenacia Minor and vinified it as early as the first century AD. Recognized worldwide as a great wine grape, pinot noir has many alias and is grown in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria (called Blauburgunder or Spätburgunder), Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany (Spätburgunder), Greece, Hungary, Italy (Pinot Nero), Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland (Clevner, labeled "Dole" when blended with Gamay Noir), the United States, and Yugoslavia (Burgundac).

The reputation that gets pinot noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of Burgundy (Bourgogne), France. For most of wine history, this two-mile-wide, thirty-mile-long stretch of hills, called the Côte d'Or ("Golden Hill" or "Golden Slope"), is the only region to achieve consistent success from the pinot noir vine.

The quality of Bourgogne is due to a number of factors. Its vineyards slope gently down toward the East, providing the vines with long sun exposure yet avoiding afternoon heat. The soil there is very calcareous (chalky; containing calcium carbonate), offering good drainage. Well-drained soils have a higher average temperature, which assists ripening. Pinot noir seems to reflect more pronounced Gout de Terroir, or flavor of the soil, than other black grape types, making vineyard site selection a critical factor.

Ken Wright sorting Pinot noir grapes Difficulties plague pinot noir at every step, from propagation to even its bottle-aging characteristics. Genetically unstable, the parent vine may produce offspring that bear fruit that is nothing like the parent's in the size and shape of the berry or cluster and will frequently even have different aromas, flavors, and levels of productivity. Ampelographers estimate there are from 200 to possibly 11,000 clones (genetic mutations) of pinot noir. By comparison, cabernet sauvignon has only twelve identifiable clones.

Nearly every affliction known to affect vines is common among pinot noir vineyards. Although quite tolerant of cold climates, it is particularly susceptible to Spring frosts, because it is one of the earliest-leafing varieties. The sharpshooter leafhopper finds pinot noir a perfect host. This bug carries Pierce's Disease, which can destroy an entire vineyard in as little as three years. Leaf-roll virus is prevalent in almost all pinot noir plantings over ten years old. The pinot vines are not very vigorous and often lack adequate leaf cover to protect the fruit from birds, which do much damage. Even if the grapes survive the birds, if not picked promptly at maturity, the thin-skinned and tender berries shrivel and dry out rapidly, resulting in a raisiny aroma and neutral flavor.

Pinot Noir is also one of the more difficult wines to ferment. Partly due to the presence of 18 amino acids, which are naturally balanced in this variety, Pinot Noir ferments violently, often "boiling" up and out of its container, speeding the process out of control. Color retention is a major problem for the thin-skinned berries. Pinot is very prone to acetification and often loses the sometimes promising aromas and flavors it seems to display through fermentation and aging, as soon as it is bottled.

Sokol Blosser Pinot noir vineyard after harvest 2003 Great Pinot Noir creates a lasting impression on the palate and in the memory. Its aroma can be intense with a ripe-grape, vaguely pepperminty or black cherry aroma. Ripe tomato, mushroom, and barnyard are also common descriptors for identifying Pinot Noir. It is full-bodied and rich but not heavy, high in alcohol, yet neither acidic nor tannic, with substantial flavor despite its delicacy. The most appealing quality of Pinot Noir may be its soft, velvety texture. When right, it is like liquid silk, gently caressing the palate. (see our Tasting Notes) Pinot does not have the longevity in the bottle of the darker red wines and tends to reach its peak at five to eight years past the vintage.

The best food to show off the delicacy and texture of Pinot Noir is a good cut of plain roast beef. Classic French cooking has creations based on Pinot Noir, such as Coq au Vin (chicken cooked in red wine) Boeuf Bourginon, and Cassoulet. Other main dishes that match well with Pinot Noir include roasted and braised preparations of lamb, pheasant, and duck, as well as grilled meaty fish, such as salmon, shark, and swordfish. Best are foods that are simple and rich. Go easy on the spices, some of which may mask the delicate flavors of pinot noir and tend to accentuate the hot taste of alcohol.

Jim LaMar is editor of Professional Friends of Wine, instructs Introductory Sensory Evaluation of Wine at California State University, Fresno, and has been drinking, thinking, teaching and writing about wine for 30 years. He is a member of Professional Friends of Wine.

Oregon Pinot noir Flavor Descriptors Chart

Here is a chart used at the UC Davis Dept of Enology and Viticulture to train students to describe the aromas and flavors of Pinot noir.

If you maintain a notebook of tasting notes, this is a useful chart to have on hand when attempting to capture the particular characteristics of an Oregon Pinot noir in words.

Typical Pinot Noir Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors

Varietal Aromas/Flavors: Processing Bouquets/Flavors:
Fruit: cherry, strawberry, raspberry, ripe tomato Terroir: mushroom, earth, barnyard, truffle, leather, meat
Floral: violet, rose petal Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood
Spice: peppermint, rosemary, cinnamon, caraway Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar
Herbal: rhubarb, beet, oregano, green tomato, green tea, black olive Bottle Age: cedar, cigar box

Pinot Noir Clones

Reproduced with permission from

If you are into Oregon Pinot noir, you have heard winemakers refer to different clones of the Pinot noir plant. Here are some of the most frequently planted clones, along with more info than you probably want about them. Study these charts and you will impress your friends and perhaps nurture a budding career as a vineyard manager!

Pinot noir Clone 113

  • Variety: Average Pinot
  • Origin: MOREY ST DENIS (Côte d'Or)
  • Selection Centre: I.N.R.A.COLMAR Pathology
  • Date of Approval: 1971
  • Morphological and vegetative characteristics.
  • Bud growth: cottony, bronzed or lightly rosy. Young pale leaves. Jagged
  • Adult leaf: often trilobate, slightly open petiolar sinus, average bullate blade on an even profile, short teeth on convex sides.
  • Branch: purplish
  • Habit: drooping - needs early tying
  • Cluster: small to average, stepped or winged, averagely compact with a short stalk, lignified.
  • Berry: small, spherical or short elliptical shape, varying size.
  • Earliness: Bud burst = average Flowering = average Ripening of grapes = early.
  • Fertility: average, sometimes irregular: 1.3 - 2.20
  • Cluster weight: average 60 - 100 gms
  • Production: average - sometimes below the annual yield if it fails to set fruit or if there is an uneven number development of berries on the bunch (millerandage) - may vary approx. 10% compared to 115.
  • Sugar level:above average, equivalent to 0.5 degrees.
  • Total acidity: average or very slightly high.
  • Susceptibility to grey mould: average despite its earliness.
  • Organoleptic characteristics of the wine: clear and strong colour, fine floral: bouquet typical of the Pinot. Balanced in the mouth. Slightly masked tannins - designed for average keeping.
  • Class of wine: average or leading group.
  • Type of clone: average to high sugar levels, early, good quality level, a sufficient but sometimes irregular yield.
  • Pruning: Guyot system - production may be regularised by careful bud removal or pruning.
  • Locations: high success in good Pinot soils where it can complement the 115 clone with its sharpness of aroma. Avoid conditions that favour vigour. Oversee the choice of rootstock.

Pinot noir Clone 114

  • Variety: Average Pinot
  • Origin: MOREY ST DENIS (Côte d'Or)
  • Selection centre: I.N.R.A COLMAR Pathology
  • Date of Approval: 1971
  • Morphological and vegetative characteristics
  • Bud growth: cottony, bronzed, lightly rosy. Young leaves are very jagged.
  • Adult leaf: five lobes, deep lateral sinuses, slightly open petiolar sinus, dark green blade, heavily bullate, lightly crinkled, a twisted profile and revolute edges.
  • Branch: purplish on the sun side.
  • Habit: quite droopy - early tying is recommended.
  • Cluster: small and compact - lignified stalk.
  • Berry: small, spherical or elliptical, short, size varies. Uneven development of the berries on the bunch (millerandage) during cold spring is normal.
  • Earliness: bud burst = average. Flowering = average. Ripening of grapes = early.
  • Fertility: average, high for its type: 1.4 - 2.0
  • Cluster weight: average 60 - 90 gms
  • Production: average and close to the reference yield ( 5 to 15% below 115)
  • Sugar level: high, in the order of 0.7 degrees above the average.
  • Total acidity: average - remains high despite earliness
  • Susceptibility to grey mould: average
  • Organoleptic characteristics of the wine: strong colour with a purplish hue, rich aroma, tannic, good structure in the mouth, balanced and appropriate for keeping.
  • Class of Wine: leading group
  • Type of clone: average production, high sugar content, early, good quality, sufficient yield - good specificity.
  • Pruning: Guyot system - short prunes ( fan, cordon ) may be performed with good results.
  • Locations: grows well in Pinot locations where it is associated with the success of Clone 115 - try to strictly master the vigour.

Pinot noir Clone 115

  • Variety: Average Pinot
  • Origin: MOREY ST DENIS (Côte d'Or)
  • Selection Centre: I.N.R.A.COLMAR Pathology
  • Date of Approval: 1971
  • Morphological and vegetative characteristics
  • Bud Growth: very cottony, bronzed, lightly rosy (important tendrils)
  • Adult leaf: average size, jagged, often with five lobes and deep lateral sinuses, slightly undulating blade, crinkled, averagely bullate with an involute profile and revolute edges, teeth have convex on straight lines.
  • Branch: a red colour with purplish nodes.
  • Habit: slightly droopy - easy to tie if carried out early enough.
  • Cluster: small to average, spherical or short elliptical shape, colourful, quite pruinose
  • Earliness: bud burst = average - leaves remain small during cold springs
  • Flowering: average to early - good fruit setting
  • Ripening of grapes: early, homogenous
  • Fertility: average: varies from 1.2 to 1.9 depending on the year and the growing conditions
  • Cluster weight: average 70-90 gms
  • Production: situated in the average reference yield.
  • Sugar level: above average: potentially by 0.5 degrees.
  • Total acidity: below average with a higher pH level.
  • Susceptibility to grey mould: average despite its earliness.
  • Organoleptic characteristics of the wine: strong colour with purplish hues, superior bouquet, elegant rich aromas typical of its type, a hint of small fruits, well structured, tannic, long, suitable for keeping.
  • Class of wine: leading group.
  • Type of clone: average production, rich sugar content, early, good quality, regular and sufficient yield, good ability to adapt - take care of the soil.
  • Pruning: the Guyot system is best but a shorter cut (fan or cordon) can be practiced in certain conditions (early planting, high-quality vineyards - to enhance its qualitative potential.
  • Locations: It is particularly good in Pinot locations (chalky soil - gravel or stones, well drained with good exposure). In a lesser grade soil (rich and deep soil, favourable exposure, high altitude) with a close check on vigour (choice of rootstock, manure and bud-load) it will produce a reasonable quality wine. This clone has varying base (35 to 60%) that gives a quality production, good in quality areas, regional or local appellations.

Pinot noir Clone 375

  • Variety: fructiferous
  • Origin: ST-DENIS-DE-VAUX (Saone-et-Loire)
  • Selection centre: A.N.T.A.V.
  • Date of approval: 1974
  • Morphological and vegetative characteristics
  • Bud growth:
  • Adult leaf: often entire, mid-green blade, involute, slightly bullate and crinkled, very little pigment in the veins.
  • Branch:
  • Habit: only slightly droopy, bushy
  • Cluster: average, stepped, compact, and solidly structured.
  • Berry: small to average, size varying according to compactness.
  • Earliness: ripening of grapes=early to average
  • Fertility: 20% above the average (generally always 2 clusters but also some double basal buds).
  • Cluster weight: above average 70-110 gms
  • Production: at least 40% above the reference yield with the Guyot cut.
  • Sugar level: very slightly below the average and very influenced by return
  • Total acidity: equal or very slightly above average (=0.15g/l)
  • Susceptibility to grey mould:
  • Organoleptic characteristics of the wine: average colour strength, quality aromas, elegant, fruity. Balanced structure, supple, limited keeping only.
  • Class of wine: average
  • Type of clone: elevated and regular yield, very fertile - produces wines to drink that are younger than those destined for prolonged keeping.
  • Pruning: avoid the Guyot system. A short cut is preferred (cordons with spurs and one well-developed bud). Bud removal is necessary. Thinning is often appropriate.
  • Locations: It will suit regional appellations. Associated with other less productive selections. With a limit of 30% it could pass for a Pas-tout-grains. In all cases try to limit yield.

Pinot noir Clone 667

  • Variety: average Pinot
  • Origin: MOREY ST DENIS (Côte d'Or)
  • Selection centre: A.N.T.A.V
  • Date of Approval: 1980
  • Morphological and vegetative characteristics
  • Bud growth: cottony with a rosy edge, developed tendrils - young pale leaves with 5 lobes.
  • Adult leaf: often with 5 lobes, open lateral sinuses, dark green blade, very bullate, twisted profile with revolute edges.
  • Branch: purplish areas
  • Habit: reasonably droopy
  • Cluster: conical, stepped, quite compact, and slightly structured
  • Berry: small to average, varying size
  • Earliness: budburst=average to late, flowering=average, ripening of grapes=average.
  • Fertility: very slightly below average 1.3 - 1.8
  • Cluster weight: average 70 - 100 gms
  • Production: within the average of the reference yield (often very close to clone 115)
  • Sugar level: above average by 0.4 degrees
  • Total acidity: just below average (0.1g/l)
  • Susceptibility to grey mould: good habit but without any particular resistance
  • Organoleptic characteristics of the wine: beautiful, strong colour, elegant and quality bouquet but not well developed, has the structure of a wine to keep, tannic, quite long.
  • Class of wine: leading group
  • Type of clone: average production with good sugar levels, interesting qualitative and quantitative aptitudes. Avoid excessive loading of the vine.
  • Pruning: Guyot is preferable.
  • Locations: Can profit in all good Pinot locations producing a wine of high quality. Close enough to clone 115 with which it can be associated.

Pinot noir Clone 777

  • Variety: high-quality Pinot
  • Origin: MOREY ST DENIS (Côte d'Or)
  • Selection centre: A.N.T.A.V.
  • Date of approval: 1981
  • Morphological and vegetative characteristics
  • Bud growth: Typical of the Pinot but the copper-colour is pronounced.
  • Adult leaf: quite small with 3 lobes (or often 5) - dark green blade, an involute profile, revolute edges, bullate top face, and short teeth on convex sides.
  • Branch: quite coloured, reddening on the side exposed to the sun
  • Habit: drooping
  • Cluster: small, conical, compact, short peduncle, a little lignified.
  • Berry: small, spherical or elliptical. Irregular diameter.
  • Earliness: bud burst = average to late, flowering = average to late, ripening of grapes = early
  • Fertility: just above the average: 1.2 - 1.7
  • Cluster weight: average to small: 50 - 90 gms
  • Production: below the reference average - in the order of 15% below that of 115
  • Sugar level: above average by an estimated 0.6 degrees.
  • Total acidity: below average by 0.5g/l
  • Susceptibility to grey mould: not very susceptible, but without strong resistance.
  • Organoleptic characteristics of the wine: strong and intense colours, strong aromas, typical of this type, good balance - round, tannins, appropriate to keep.
  • Class of wine: leading group.
  • Type of clone: high-quality Pinot with a short cycle (quite late bud burst and early maturity) with a higher degree of sugar content, weak acidity and a good performance against Botrytis. Moderate returns enable it to produce an excellent quality wine to be kept.
  • Pruning: Guyot with a bud-stick is preferred.
  • Locations: must be planted in quality zones. Brings a qualitative bonus in any situation. Endeavour to avoid conditions that favour excess vigour that expose the plant to uneven development of berries on a bunch.

Vintage Times in Oregon Wine Country

by Andy Perdue, Wine Press NW

Although written in 2001, this article continues to provide one of the best overviews of Oregon winemaking and the importance of vintage we have to offer. -JY

Oregon's fickle lover is smiling these days.

Pinot noir, one of the most difficult grapes to manage, has been Oregon's steady romance for a quarter-century. It's a most alluring wine in great years and can be heart-achingly mediocre in difficult vintages. And after three tough years from 1995 to 1997, Oregon vineyards have enjoyed one of the best stretches of pinot-growing conditions in recent memory.

Hype for the 1998 pinots was at an ear-splitting pitch a year ago when many of these wines were being released, thanks primarily to the hunger that lovers of Oregon wine had after three years of what can generously be called "challenging."

The good news is that for the most part, '98 pinot noirs lived up to the publicity. The better news is that the '99s that consumers are beginning to see are even more delicious. And the '00s are shaping up to be absolutely incredible.

"The future is ahead for Oregon pinot noirs," says Gary Andrus of Archery Summit in Dundee.

1995, 1996, 1997 Were Tough Vintages

Despite the buzz about Western Oregon pinots, the past three years have been nail-biters for vineyard managers and wineries.

The 1998 vintage didn't start out optimistically, as spring rain left the vines in dismal shape. Summer and fall were unusually warm, however, leading to a dry harvest and crops in many places of less than a ton of grapes per acre (by comparison, a typical year yields 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre for pinot noir).

The 1999 vintage was a much larger crop, and a warm spring allowed for full bloom and clusters. Then, it cooled off. By Labor Day, vintners were wondering if the grapes would ever get ripe, but September heated up, and by early October, harvest began. What is roundly being called the "miracle year" is producing textured, expressive wines that are less powerful and more elegant than 1998.

2000 was a little less nerve-wracking for vintners. In most places, the spring was normal, though Michael Etzel of Beaux Frères in Yamhill County reported an Easter eve frost that reduced yields. The summer and fall were warm - but not hot - and harvest began in late September. The young, unfinished wines in barrel have yet to reveal their full quality, but winemakers have high hopes. "2000 could be every bit as good as '99," Etzel says.

"We were really blessed with three great vintages in a row," says Joe Dobbes, winemaker for Willamette Valley Vineyards, south of Salem.

Joe Dobbes Makes Wine All over Oregon

Dobbes, who probably makes more wine than anyone else in Oregon, not only crafts Willamette Valley Vineyards' 60,000 cases, but he also makes nearly 10,000 cases each for its other two labels, Tualatin Estate in the Willamette Valley and Griffin Creek in the Rogue Valley. Last year, he also became winemaker for Torii Mor when Patricia Green left to buy Autumn Wind, now Patricia Green Cellars. Torii Mor has a cult following and produces 6,000 cases annually, primarily pinot noir.

Dobbes got a taste for great pinot when he worked in Burgundy in the late '80s. "I gained a lot of perspective there," he says. He joined Willamette Valley Vineyards in 1996 and quickly got wrapped up in starting Griffin Creek and reworking the look of the Tualatin Estate and Willamette brands. He's now backed away from the marketing and packaging side of the business so he can focus on the wines.

"We want to be known as America's top pinot noir producer," he says.

To do that, Dobbes looks for quality through diversity. He experiments with various clones of pinot noir and tries yeast strains from high-end Burgundy producers. "I'm a yeast freak." Despite the amount he produces, his wines are kept as separate as possible: different clones, different vineyards, different blocks within vineyards and different kinds of barrels. He ferments separately as much as possible, sometimes driving the winery staff a little crazy. But he sees this attention to detail as the key to Oregon's success in often less-than-ideal weather conditions.

"Clonal selection experimentation is higher in Oregon than anywhere else in the United States," Dobbes says, "and probably the world."

Gary Andrus Helped put Oregon Pinot noirs on the Map

Gary Andrus of Archery Summit knows a little about experimentation.

The owner and winemaker of one of the mostly highly touted wineries in star-studded Yamhill County is a scientist by training and loves to run trials. At any one time, he is running hundreds of tests, be they various pinot noir clones, different styles and makers of oak barrels, trellising systems, fermentation styles and more, all using gentle gravity flow systems. His beautiful underground caves are filled with French and American oak barrels with wine at various stages

It's a major challenge to keep all the clones straight," Andrus says as he draws a glass tube - a "wine thief" - from a barrel and pours the captured pinot into a glass".

But he doesn't seem to have much trouble. He knows as much about every drop of his 12,000 cases as humanly possible. He loves to walk through the vineyards during the growing season - he deeply believes that winemaking starts in the vineyard. And he believes Oregon's success is tied to what winemakers do with the vines. He points to 1997 as a prime example. In what universally has been politely called a difficult year, Archery Summit made what Andrus thinks was his crowning achievement.

"Careful attention to the vineyard separated the men from the boys," Andrus says. "Hedging, leaf removal and dropping fruit at veraison (when the grapes turn color) was the only means of success."

He thinks that the high quality vintages Oregon has enjoyed since 1998 should serve as models for when the weather isn't quite so generous.

"Winegrowers, not farmers, make wine," Andrus says. He believes Oregon wineries are successful when they control their own destinies in the vineyard. This means wineries owning or leasing vineyards or contracting them by the acre instead of by weight so they can dictate that quality rules over quantity. He thinks more winemakers should spend time in the vineyard during the growing season so they can taste the fruit as it develops. Andrus also believes in sorting harvested grapes by hand to remove low-quality fruit before its juice is squeezed out.

"Make no compromises" is Andrus' creed. And it shows in his final product, which is some of Oregon's best - and most expensive - pinot noir.

"While I am proud and humbled by the success of our wines with our customers, with the trade and with the press, I am also excited about wineries that are newer than ours that will push all of us to raise the quality of Oregon pinot noirs," Andrus says.

Andrus tips his hat to Oregon's pinot pioneers, who produced classy to great wines without the benefit of today's knowledge.

"Simply put, today's vintners are more scientifically trained, have had the opportunity to learn from history, to compare results with a greatly expanded universe of wine producers, have better equipment to use in the vineyards and cellars and have the opportunity to study the many technical changes in production in the vineyards."

Today, Oregon winemakers do not copy Burgundy's techniques, Andrus notes, but instead take a more global view. "We are so very blessed - or perhaps just lucky - that the study of our profession has expanded.

"Knowledge is wealth, and it has led to the production of better wines," he says.

Beaux Frères stays true to the Grape

Unlike Dobbes and Andrus, who bottle many separate styles and vineyard-designated pinots, Michael Etzel focuses very narrowly on but one pinot noir at Beaux Frères, an estate nestled into the backroads of rural Yamhill County and producer of one of Oregon's most highly sought wines.

Mike Etzel, Beaux FrèresAll grapes that go into Beaux Frères wine come from the 25 acres of vineyards on the 86-acre estate atop Ribbon Ridge in the Chehalem Valley near Newberg. The property was a dilapidated pig and dairy farm when he and his wife, Jacqueline, partnered with brother-in-law and famed wine writer Robert M. Parker Jr.

Robert Roy, a Quebec pinot noir enthusiast, joined the partnership a few years later.

"We like to be distinctively different," Etzel says. "When people taste our wine, I want to have them say, 'Wow, that's Beaux Frères!' "

In addition to being very particular in the vineyard, Etzel is equally meticulous in the cellar. He uses primarily expensive new French oak barrels and allows them to air dry an additional year after purchase, removing some of their "greenness."

Most of Beaux Frères' 3,000 cases of pinot noir is presold to a mailing list of customers. But Etzel has expanded the vineyard in recent years, which means he is inviting new customers onto his list.

And he now is producing another pinot noir called Belles Soeurs (pronounced Bell Sur). It isn't a "second label" of lower-class wine, but instead allows Etzel to work with other vineyards while keeping the integrity of Beaux Frères' estate designation. His current release of Belles Soeurs, the Shea Vineyard Yamhill County Cuvée, retails in the $40 to $50 range.

Looking at the past three vintages, Etzel sees 1998 as "a wine with longevity." A big wine that has yet to show its full potential, he suggests it be cellared for some time. In 1999, his maturing vineyard produced more grapes than ever before, and he's profoundly fond of the wine, which is close to being released.

"This is the kind of wine that I like personally," Etzel says, "wine that gives more than a promise of things to come. It's wine that gives pleasure now."

He also has high hopes for the unfinished 2000 vintage, which already is showing off complex aromas, vibrant fruit and refreshing acidity.

Etzel's prediction of Oregon's future is it will be "a boon for the lover of fine pinot noir, America's best answer to Burgundy, with many small farms and small producers, a multiplicity of styles and vineyard characters and an increasing emphasis on high quality."

Belle Pente excels with dedication to Quality and the Vineyard

Another of those small producers is Belle Pente, a Yamhill County estate owned by Brian and Jill O'Donnell that produced 3,500 cases of pinot noir from the 2000 vintage.

"I think the future is bright for Oregon pinot noir," Brian O'Donnell says, "especially for small, quality-oriented producers. The level of interest appears to be at an all-time high, as is the quality of the wines."

He began making wine in Oregon in 1992, and his first commercial vintage was 1996, in the midst of the three tough vintages. Despite this, he was able to produce top wines in '96 and '97.

"Managing yields to reasonable levels is very important, especially in difficult vintages," O'Donnell says. "That was the key to our success in '97.

"There is a risk that these last three years will lull us into a false sense of security. But winemakers who stick to the fundamentals of low yields and gentle, natural winemaking will be successful even in marginal vintages."

Belle Pente's 1998 pinot noirs have good balance and sweet, ripe fruit, O'Donnell says. His '99 pinots have great structure but are slow to develop and only now are showing their vineyard characteristics. He believes the '99s will show more structure than the '98s but with less ripe, sweet fruit. The Belle Pente '00 pinots, he says, are evolving more quickly than the '99s and already are showing great promise.

"The three current good vintages, coupled with more competent viticulture and winemaking, will clearly enhance Oregon's reputation," O'Donnell says.

Kate Bolling is counting on it. The owner of Oregon Wines on Broadway in downtown Portland near Nordstrom specializes in Oregon and Washington wines by the glass and by the bottle. She typically has 30 pinot noirs available for her wine bar customers.

"'95, '96 and '97, we'll call them challenging," she said, adding many wines from the '96 vintage are drinking nicely after some time in the bottle, though none will be as big and bold as the three most recent vintages. "We're looking at three really nice, ripe vintages. We're going to get really nice complexity with the '98s."

She added that she thinks the '99s will have a bit more balance and will be a better wine for collectors. Her only problem with the '99s is she thinks they're being released a little too early because there was so little wine in the '98 vintage. "It's tough to show '99 wines right now." She suggests that buyers hold back on drinking the '99s for a while and instead enjoy the '96 and '97 pinots.

Bolling, who has owned Oregon Wines on Broadway for nearly two years, marvels at the quality of Oregon pinots in general.

"It's amazing if you consider the battle with weather," she said. "It seems that in '98, '99 and 2000, the winemakers were able to escape that, and they were able to get fruit that truly comes to fruition. Instead of dealing with weather, they have more control."

That control, Oregon vintners hope, will pay off when Mother Nature's kiss isn't as kind as it's been the past three years.

How & Why Pinot noir Ages

By Lisa Shara Hall, Reprinted with permission from Wine Business Monthly

The ageability of Pinot noir--like the aging of any wine--is a complicated and controversial subject. That topic was the focus of the most recent International Pinot noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon. While panelists raised many issues, and winemakers presented both young and older Burgundian and Oregon Pinots to taste, not surprisingly, no consensus was achieved.

Starting with Age

The first panel presentation focused on older Pinots. Moderated by executive vice president (and former senior Christie's auction executive) Ursula Hermincinski, panelists included Jean-Pierre de Smet of Domaine de L'Arlot, Etienne de Montille of Domaine de Montille, Martine Saunier representing Maison Leroy, Dick Erath of Erath Vineyards Winery, Dick Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards and David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards.

The questions that the winemakers addressed circled around the topic of what makes wines age. The why question--why can it be so captivating to drink older Pinot? why wait to drink Pinot?--may have been on the conference attendees' minds as they tasted the older wines (especially the 1983 De Montille, aging marvelously and from a very difficult vintage), but the topic the panel attacked was all about what allows a wine to age well.

Jean-Pierre de Smet summed up in his first few words the observation that became a central theme throughout the entire weekend conference: "It has to be a good vintage to age properly, but that doesn't mean it will age well," de Smet said. When asked directly "What makes a wine age?" his answer gained more applause that anything else that day. De Smet replied, "I don't know."

De Smet also made a comment--confirmed with nods by the other Burgundians--that has to shake a Burgundian's roots; that aging makes terroir less important. After 20 years, there appears to be less a difference between and among the wines. This was a bold admission for the French to make considering that their battle-cry has been "Terroir."

Etienne de Montille believes the key to aging is in the vineyard. Balanced vines play a critical role, he said, with healthy ripe fruit an important tool for aging. But de Montille cautioned, "It's more important to have good acid and tannin rather than alcohol and tannin." And if his 1983 Volnay Mitans was an example, that wine disputed de Smet's comment about the absolute importance of a fine vintage year. Most consider 1983 a difficult vintage. The grapes were very concentrated, with thick skins. Rain diluted the grapes some in September, but hot weather followed and re-concentrated the grapes. Hail in some communes caused problems (not in Volnay), and rot was present all over, requiring heavy triage.

David Lett (at right) agreed with de Smet but addressed the balance question. He said "It's not any one component that allows a wine to age. It's a matter of balance, of fruit, tannin, acid and moderate alcohol."

But Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen (not a panelist at IPNC, but an attendee who brought along one of his outstanding 1987 Pinots from Santa Barbara) thinks that balance really isn't the ticket. "For wines to age, it's not about balance! You need proper structure. My 1987 was picked in harmony, with no adjustments at all. It had a naturally low pH of 3.45, even though the grapes came in with a Brix of 13.5. We used 50 percent whole cluster and that '87 is complex and interesting," he said.

But is proper structure just another way to talk about balance? Does properly balanced fruit mean "properly structured"?

Vintage Variation

Dick Erath summed up that first day by asserting that "ageability still depends on a vintage year." This is absolutely true for weather-challenged Oregon, and mostly true for Burgundy.

The next day at IPNC, a panel moderated by Jasper Morris discussed contrasting qualities of ageability. This is where the discussion grew more technical.

Véronique Drouhin (winemaker at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon (DDO) and as part of the Drouhin family négotiant operation in Beaune, France) asserted that aging is not about structure or color, but about increased complexity that becomes more obvious with time. That length determines a wine's future for aging. "It's about the finish, complexity and harmony of a wine," she said, explaining that the factors that controlled the aging potential are yield, style and vintage variations. By using the examples that were poured--the 1997 and 1998 DDO--she compared the two wines.

"These wines are two extremes," Drouhin began. "In 1997 we had a large crop; lowered yields, yes, but still a very-big crop. We had rain during harvest. We had to use saignée. The wine is pleasant now, meant for early drinking." The next year was dramatically different. "1998 was a warm year and we picked late. It was a very small crop and we gave the wine a longer maceration period." Drouhin says she used to choose the 1993 vintage as her favorite wine; now she says she prefers her 1998.

As Drouhin emphasized style, Frederic Mugnier used the wines he brought to show that climate was the only difference. He said "We did nothing different in the vineyards or cellar, maybe only more lees contact in the 1997." The main difference between the 1996 Chambolle-Musigny and the 1997 is acid levels (the 1996 is higher). In fact, the 1997 vintage--much softer with less capacity for longer aging that the 1996--saw lower yields that the more concentrated, firmer 1996! (The yield, concentration and aging issues received limited discussion but loads of murmurs.) Mugnier's best comment: "The winemaker doesn't have much control to increase the aging potential. It's all the grapes."

But the New World spoke up in defense of creating balance. Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem in Newberg, Oregon argued that balance equals ageability. Like Drouhin, he showed wines from two recent successive vintages, the 1997 Rion Reserve Pinot noir and the same wine from 1998. But different from Drouhin, he talked about the need to tweak a wine in the cellar.

What are the Quality Factors for Pinot Noir in the Vineyard?

Current thinking in Burgundy and the New World champions the vineyard

Healthy plants mean no diseases, a fairly dry summer, and little rain before harvest. The grapes must be balanced, with enough sugar and enough acidity (resulting from cool nights, some stress and limited rain). Warm and dry weather promote thick skins, which contain more polyphenols. Strong anthocyanins come from cool nights and a lower nitrogen level.

A low ratio of liquid to solids keeps concentration; poor fruit set and rain at harvest can dilute and defeat that goal. Ripe stems and pips need the same conditions.

Are there differences between Old and New World viticulture that could make a difference? Viticulture philosophy seems to be converging. But with terroir so dominant in Burgundy and so untested in the New World, the focus is a bit different. Soil looms large in Burgundy, with best results from poor soils. Orientation of the vines is a consistent south-southeast. Plants are all grafted, with consideration given to soil, climate and vigor in choosing clones. Density is high, while New World density has to address competition (to limit vigor), micro and mesoclimate influences (for controlling temperature) and lower per vine production. Trellising has the same differences: Guyot with 3-4 wires in Burgundy, and a whole world of systems in the New World.

Burgundy in large part (at least among the top hundred producers) has swung towards sustainable agriculture. The New World has shown increased interest, too: the Oregon-based LIVE program, organic, and biodynamic systems have been gaining ground.

Vinification Methods in Relationship to Style

But the wild card of finesse comes from what? Can you help create finesse? Drouhin wonders whether choices such as clones or wild yeast could contribute to finesse. As a Burgundian, she also brings up the oft-repeated ‘T' word: terroir.

What can a winemaker do to style a wine for early or aged consumption?

Fred Mugnier argues you do nothing different, that it's all in the grapes, which is very Burgundian thinking. Harry Peterson-Nedry (at right) talked about what he did differently in 1997 versus 1998:In the difficult 1997 vintage, Peterson-Nedry saignéed the must, let it macerate a bit longer, inoculated it, added enzymes for needed color extraction and used no whole clusters. His 1997 Rion Reserve showed well, with a more immediate accessibility and some elegance.

In the very ripe 1998 vintage, he wanted to minimize the extraction, so he used no whole clusters, no enzymes, lowered the fermentation temperature a bit, and acidified the wine. The 1998 Rion Reserve offered big rich ripeness and extraction with a tight core needing time to open. The two wines showed definite vintage variations, but Peterson-Nedry's explanation of the cellar differences showed what can be done to accommodate those variations.

Back to The Why Drink Old Pinot Question

So why drink an older Pinot? Of course, it is all a matter of preference. In broad generalities, some people--notably New World palates--prefer the fruity brighter flavors of a young wine. The British in particular are known for enjoying all wines with age and more complex, less fruit flavors.

Look at the international auction numbers. Pinot noir barely registers on the radar screen. Cabernet--Bordeaux or cult California wines--dominate the scene. Obviously that implies that more Cabernet Sauvingon is being made. But does it also suggest there's less demand for older Pinot noir; that Cabernet tastes better with age than Pinot does?

What makes a wine taste better with age? One can certainly list the factors--oxidation, pH levels, tannin, the phenolic balance and the wild card of storage temperatures--but there isn't exactly a formula. And what is the desired character of an older Pinot? Should it be earthy? Should it be "barnyardy?" Should there be any fruit at all discernible? Who is to say what the peak drinking period is or will be?

Then again, how does one judge whether a young wine will be able to age well? That's a classic question, most often aimed at journalists. As Drouhin said at IPNC, "Fine wine, one that will age well, is about finesse. if there is too much extract, then it's not finesse. The finish defines aging, as does complexity. But that increased complexity becomes more obvious with time, and is very hard to judge in a young wine."

So we are back to the starting question. How do you make a Pinot noir for long aging? How can you tell if a young one will age? Perhaps that's why New World consumers prefer the obvious, drink-now quality of wines, and why the Brits--with a longer history of drinking aged wines--are willing to wait and take the risk. When the stars are aligned, aged Pinot noir can bring a pleasure not found in other wines. But knowing that up front can be problematic.

About Author Lisa Shara Hall

Lisa Shara Hall is the author of Wines of the Pacific Northwest (Mitchell Beazley 2001) and the co-author of The Food Lover's Companion to Portland (Chronicle Books 1996). She serves as Senior Editor for Wine Business Communications (Wine Business Monthly, Wine Business Insider and and writes for numerous publications including the annual Hugh Johnson Pocket Guide to Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine, The Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson World Atlas of Wine, and Decanter.

Lisa is an active member of the Society of Wine Educators and the British-based Circle of Wine Writers. She is a frequent lecturer and educator, as well as the first candidate in Oregon for the Master of Wine qualification.

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