A Gift of Profound Generosity
The Lett Family's Historical Tasting -
29 Vintages of Eyrie Vineyards' South Block Pinot noir
Author: Jean Yates
In the summer of 2011, the owners of Eyrie Vineyards conducted an unforgettable tasting of 29 vintages of their famed South Block Pinot noir. The Lett family opened dozens of cases of their best wines for a guest list of 100 people. The tasting was a once in a lifetime experience.
The event was a testament to the outstanding winemaking of Eyrie founder David Lett, who passed away in 2009. Remarkably, the tasting included David's exceedingly rare, world famous 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir.
At the tasting, Jason Lett, David's son and Eyrie's winemaker, (at right) introduced the wines. The audience included family and longtime personal friends, some of whom helped with harvest since the first year the Letts made wine. Also in attendance were members of the Eyrie Wine Club, distributors, importers, retailers, famous wine journalists, and fellow Oregon winemakers.
Tasting Through Oregon Wine History
It was a 35-year taste through history, starting with the most recent vintages and moving back through history to the renowned 1975. Participants sipped backwards through the development of the vineyard, from the mature 40-43 year old vines of the 2007 vintage to 1975's 5-7 year old youngsters. The one change to the order of vintages was the juxtaposition of David's first and last vintages - the first from 1975 and the last the 2007, made by David just days before he died.
With few exceptions, the wines were previously unavailable to the public. David rarely released the South Block Pinot Noir for sale. Long time Eyrie Wine Club members at the event described the frustration of buying and loving the South Block at club tastings, only to find that he had withdrawn it, returning it to the cellar for more aging.
By bringing the wines out of the cellar, Jason said he was fulfilling his dad's wishes.
"Before he passed away, he left me a 'to-do' list," Jason said. "One of the items on that list was to show that Oregon Pinot Noir ages very well. I'm now able to cross that off my list."
"My dad felt so deeply about it that he put 27 vintages in the cellar after he made them, knowing they would age well. He made them to age."
To prepare the wine for sale, Jason Lett and his assistants tasted 3200 bottles of South Block over six months. In a 21-step process, they designed, tasted, blended, rebottled, added sulphur, and re-corked, all without exposing the wine to air.
In preparing the wine, Jason found an 18 percent oxidation rate, with 4 percent of the wines showing "taint." The wines were re-closed with a new closure - a cork with consistent quality. Jason noted that as they tasted through the vintages, they noticed that "corks have vintages, just like wine, and some are better than others."
There were exceptions to the overall excellent quality of the vintages. Jason described the one vintage they checked where virtually every bottle had some taint. He rejected almost all of them, selecting the best to pour at the tasting—it was the only vintage with the slightest hint of damage.
The Legendary South Block
The story of the South Block of Eyrie's Estate Vineyard begins in 1965, when David Lett took grapevines from Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, to Dundee and planted his vineyard. The South Block was planted between 1968 and 1972. The South Block Reserve was only made in the best vintages, skipping the 1977, 78, 79 and 84 vintages.
The South Block of the Estate Vineyard is only ten rows. Only 75-150 cases of wine were made in each vintage. Because he didn't intend to sell it, many of the bottles had no labels. Eyrie had to print labels for the 1982 through 2007 vintages and determine the vintages by stamps on the boxes.
In the face of changing styles and the search for ratings, David Lett remained relentlessly dedicated to making wine that was meant to age. He never compromised to make "tasting room" wine that showed well as soon as it was bottled. As a result of his dedication, every vintage of the Eyrie South Block showed a remarkable youthfulness.
"I think some winemakers think you have to make a punishing wine in order for it to age," said Jason, who worked along side his father for many years. "If a wine is not balanced at its youth, 20 years of cellaring will not improve it. If it is out of harmony, 20 years later, it will still be out of harmony."
Now that the wines are out of the cellar, Jason said his goal is to feature high-end tasting flights at the winery's tasting room, so that the public can taste the age-worthiness of Oregon Pinot Noir.
"You don't get many opportunities like that," he added.
The South Block Reserve tasting was divided into four flights. After each flight was savored, Jason asked for a show of hands. Each wine was called out and people chose their favorites. While an overall favorite emerged in each flight, every wine had its own supporters. There wasn't a "bad" wine among the 29. Even the wines made in the 1970's were remarkably good - as complex and multi faceted as much later vintages.
A lot will be written about this once in a lifetime tasting, and you'll have many sources of information. Here are my records of the favorite wines and my tasting notes.
Flight 1: 2000-2006 Vintage
Favorite - South Block Reserve 2001 Vintage -
Dark garnet color, spicy nose, intense raspberry and fresh strawberry fruit with structured acidity, smooth tannins with a tiny bit of a grip that enhances and lengthens the finish. It was the darkest color of the flight. Drink now or cellar 4-5 more years. Acidity 6/10 Flavor 7/10 Tannins 6/10 Balance - youthful++ Nose 6/10 Alcohol 5/10
Flight 2: 1993-1999 Vintage
South Block Reserve 1998 Vintage -
A landmark vintage, the weather produced a small crop of very intensely flavored fruit. Highly collectable, at its prime. Dark garnet color, lush nose of berry and toast, intense sweet fruit - blackberry and cherry, unusual for Eyrie Pinots. Well-integrated acidity, with smooth and creamy tannins. Sublimely balanced, long finish, fresh and ready to drink.
Acid 5-6/10 Flavor 8++/10 Tannins 5/10 Balance 8++/10 Nose - 5/10 Alcohol 5/10
Flight 3: 1986-1992 Vintages
Favorite: South Block Reserve 1992 Vintage -
Garnet colored, creamy toast nose, sweet berry and cherry fruit with soft acidity. Youthful, but somewhat lower acidity than is typical of Eyrie. This vintage is ready to drink. At its prime, rich and appealing.
Acid 4/10 Flavor 6/10 Tannins 5/10 Balance Yummy Alcohol 6/10
Flight 4: 1975-1985 plus 2007:
In a poignant memorial to his David, the final wines of the tasting were his first (1975) and last (2007) vintages of the South Block. In this flight of '85, '83, '82, '81, '81, '80, '76, '75, and 2007, three times as many people voted the 1975 their favorite wine of the flight.
Favorite: South Block Reserve 1975 -
Superb balance raises the wine above the rest. A light floral rose petal nose and the flavor is a constantly changing arc of raspberry, strawberry, fresh thyme, minerals, sweet violets, and anise. Unusual, gentle tannins with a hint of old oak barrel, the only indication of the age of the wine. The scent and flavors changed rapidly with air, gradually fading into the distance. Not only extraordinarily beautiful to drink, it's a historically significant wine whose like can never come again.
Acidity 5/10 Flavor +7/10 Tannins 5/10 Balance Superb Alcohol 3/10
My Favorite of the tasting: 1997 -
Short of the 1975 (in a class of its own) I liked the 1997. A much maligned vintage, David Lett wrote "The third cool vintage in a row, the third with stellar flavors, and the third vintage to be overlooked by the public."
Of his wines from the 1990's, I think the 1997 best displays his unflagging commitment to bringing out the best of what the year gave him. Oregon's 1997 vintage was hated by the wine critics and overshadowed by the popular 1998.
The1997 has youthful, bright acidity and a light nose of raspberry and strawberry fruit. It includes flavors of red raspberry, red currant, herbs and roses. The tannins are pure silk, the balance is youthful, and the acidity is still bright and fresh. The final impression is of youth, strength, silk, and balance. It will drink beautifully for four to five more years. Acidity 6/10 Flavor 9/10 Tannins 5/10 SIlk! Balance 5/10 youthful Alcohol 5/10