A Place in the Sun: Oregon Succeeds in 2012
by Harvey Steiman
There’s something for everyone among the wines arriving from Oregon through the coming year, with several vintages in play, but the unalloyed star is 2012. The top Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay bottlings — the wines Oregon does best — are stunning in 2012, with many large-volume, moderately priced options over-delivering on quality. It’s one of those vintages where virtually any bottle on the shelf should be worth drinking. The 2012s combine ripe flavors with Oregon’s natural penchant for transparency and elegance, exactly what happens in a typically cool climate when Mother Nature lavishes sun and warmth on a smaller-than-usual crop. The vintage stands as one of the best the state has ever produced.
Since my previous report (“Oregon’s Light Touch,” Jan. 31 – Feb. 28, 2014), I have reviewed nearly 675 wines from Oregon, with a record total of 16 wines earning classic scores of 95 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. This number is even more impressive when you consider that the 16 bottlings hail from 10 different wineries, showcasing both the quality of the vintage and the growing number of top producers. At the pinnacle this year is Evening Land, which made four of the classic bottlings, including the Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012 (98 points, $70), a silky red that layers gorgeous flavors on a lithe frame. This La Source is not only the report’s top-scorer but also Oregon’s highest-rated wine ever.
A number of other producers that are no strangers to the top tier are just steps behind. Beaux Frères comes the closest with its Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Upper Terrace 2012 (97, $100), offering a glow of cherry, raspberry, sassafras and cinnamon flavors, followed by bottlings from Alexana, Bergström, Bethel Heights, Brick House, Soter and Stoller. There’s also a newcomer to these exalted heights this year, with Big Table Farm delivering two 95-pointers. The vibrant Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2012 (95, $40) weaves notes of mint through raspberry and spice flavors, while the tangy Chardonnay Willamette Valley 2012 (95, $42) balances pear, pineapple, cream and floral flavors on a pinpoint of acidity.
“The hype is justified,” says Josh Bergström about the 2012 vintage. “What makes it special is that we had no heat waves as we did in 2003 or 2009, no pruning or raisining or high sugar levels. The wines are just opulent.” “In 2012, we could see the true potential of every piece of the vineyard,” says Beaux Frères proprietor Mike Etzel. “It was so clear.” That’s another way of saying the best wines express their terroir. Bergström and Beaux Frères both started out aiming for richness and density, yet have consciously tried for more delicacy in recent years. Still, their 2012s have them smiling. The wines offer winning opulence without excess weight.
Those who prefer less richness can look to surrounding vintages, when rain at harvest influenced both 2011 and 2013. Although results are all over the map, a few magnificent, delicate Pinot Noirs were made in both years, which yielded excellent whites as well. In 2011, for example, Domaine Serene bottled such beauties as the Chardonnay Dundee Hills Récolte Grand Cru (94, $125), a new estate cuvée vibrant with acidity and distinctive for its star fruit and quince flavor profile. In 2013, several Trisaetum Rieslings soared past the 90-point mark, including its Yamhill-Carlton District Coast Range Estate Dry 2013 (92, $24), with lime and lemon overtones to pear and citrus leaf flavors. The sleek, silky Eyrie Chardonnay Dundee Hills 2013 (90, $27) glides into the finish on pretty Asian pear, cardamom and cream flavors.
Typical of the better reds from 2011, the dark and spicy Eminent Domaine Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge 2011 (92, $40) dances lightly and goes deep with its currant, plum and clove flavors. But even typically high quality wines could disappoint in this vintage, as with Domaine Serene’s Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve 2011 (87, $65), whose 2010 bottling earned a spot on Wine Spectator Top 10 Wines of 2013. It’s still a good wine, but too-gritty tannins detract from a lean core of herb-accented berry flavors.
As we get ready to close the books on 2011, only 26 percent of all wines from the vintage, reviewed over the past three years, reached 90 or more points. For 2010, the number is 49 percent, and for 2012 so far it’s 50 percent. For Pinot Noir alone, the numbers are 53 percent in 2010, 32 percent in 2011 and 59 percent in 2012. Aside from variable vintages, folks in Oregon are abuzz over a renewal in activity involving outside entities, including a wave of newly arrived French vignerons.
It was a moment of validation for Oregon wine in 1987 when Robert Drouhin, patriarch of the Beaune-based négociant firm, bought 225 acres in Dundee Hills and planted a vineyard. Over the years, the wines of Domaine Drouhin Oregon, made by Robert’s daughter Véronique Drouhin-Boss, have earned a reputation for finesse and consistency. In 2012, the estate’s signature Pinot Noir Dundee Hills (92, $45) qualifies as a standout among widely available bottlings for its complexity, harmony and focus. In December 2013, DDO brought its estate holdings to more than 500 acres by purchasing the 279-acre Roserock Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills when Pacific Wine Partners sold off its extensive plantings. Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault has been a hands-on consultant to Evening Land since its inception in 2007, mapping out the geology of its home Seven Springs Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills and setting a style that has lifted the winery into the top rank of Oregon producers.
Louis-Michel Liger-Belair joined the party in 2012. Liger-Belair, who makes La Romanée at his own domaine in Vosne- Romanée, consults with owner Mark Tarlov on two projects: Chapter 24, in which Liger-Belair also has an ownership stake, and Maison l’Envoyé, in which Tarlov (a cofounder of Evening Land) has partnered with Old Bridge Cellars, a U.S. importer of Australian wines led by Gavin Speight. Mike D. Etzel, son of Mike Etzel, was the on-site winemaker for both labels in 2012 and 2013, and now he’s custom-trimming grape bunches and experimenting with concrete eggs for a pair of $300 bottlings coming soon under Chapter 24’s new 00 line.
To reduce alcohol naturally in the wines without sacrificing ripe flavors, Liger-Belair uses techniques he learned from winemaker Henri Jayer when they dealt with high sugar levels in 2003. Tarlov says that every choice during the winemaking process aims to minimize alcohol conversion, with particular emphasis on natural yeasts, yeast nutrition and temperature control. Frequent pump-overs and punch-downs in open-top fermentors also help alcohol dissipate.
Tasting through the 2013s at the winery in September, I found plenty of opulence along with a sense of spaciousness and a transparency in texture that reflects alcohol levels of 12.6 percent to 13 percent in the finished wines. The 2012s in release are scoring in the low- to mid-90s, led by the Maison L’Envoyé Pinot Noir Willamette Valley The Attaché 2012 (94, $40), which unfurls blackberry, floral and white pepper flavors with finesse, and the Chapter 24 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2012 (93, $90).