Wine Musings: Vintages – “Good” and “Bad”

It frustrates me the way vintages are reduced to “good” and “bad”. It’s not that vintage doesn’t matter – it can matter tremendously for many wines. But it’s a lot more complex than black or white. Take 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. The wines are gorgeous, but a little like me at the end of the work week – they’re wound up so tight it will take some time and coaxing before they will unwind. It made me a little sad to know so many people are pulling the corks immediately, when the wines are still hard-edged and stingy. Don’t take this wrong, they will be gorgeous, but most snotill need another year or five in the cellar before they reach their full potential.

The thunder of 2008 has overshadowed the release of 2009 wines coming to market now. Here’s the irony: many of those fleshy 2009s are already drinking better than the 2008s. This is a generous vintage, with lovely, rounded fruits. “Red and ready” winemaker Michael Lundeen, of Genius Loci, called it. These wines offer up enticing aromas and juicy, mouth-watering fruit with soft tannins, and typically have nice brightness as well. These aren’t blockbusters and many won’t improve greatly in the cellar, but these are Pinots that will coax you into sipping every last drop. Best yet, because 2009 produced high yields of fat clusters and big berries, there are really good wines available at affordable prices.

One perennial favorite that’s chock full of that juicy ‘09 fruit is the Ayres Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2009. It’s fragrant and forward, with enticing black raspberry fruits. There’s good acidity that makes it bright and lively, but the fruit has depth and length, which is rare in $20 Pinot. There’s also a warm earthiness, which is a common characteristic of the estate’s Ribbon Ridge fruit. (The rest of the blend comes from the Eola Hills.)

“Pinot on Ribbon Ridge only goes big”, winemaker Brad McLeroy said, “so I try to give a more feminine expression of that.”

Brad worked with Véronique Drouhin at Domaine Drouhin, where he clearly learned a thing or two about finesse. He loves to talk about making wines with soul. This wine conjures up the ghost of the vintage to tell its story. If you want a clearer picture, don’t hesitate to try his estate-bottled wines, Lewis Rogers (around $30 retail) and Pioneer (around $40 retail).

Ayres is owned by Brad and his wife Kathleen, as well as Don and Carol McClure, Kathleen’s parents. They farm their 14-acre property sustainably – it’s where they live and where their kids play. That care and attention to detail comes through in the wine. It just tastes like it’s been loved. Ayres wines are self-distributed in Multnomah and Yamhill Counties, and are distributed through Casa Bruno elsewhere in Oregon. They can also be purchased directly through the winery’s website.

Another Pinot that knocked me out with gorgeous fruit is the Witness Tree Vineyards “Chainsaw” Pinot Noir 2009 ($20 retail). It’s deceptively light in color but has amazing intensity to the palate. (I love Pinots that do that!).  There are notes of raspberry candy in the nose, with teasing hints of more. The palate keys in quickly to focused fresh red berries with a subtle undertone of earth. Soft tannins give it structure and length. This wine just explodes with the fruit in a way that just makes you want another sip. I started craving a burger with Rogue Blue after tasting this one before lunch. But the soft tannins will make it a strong contender for salmon as well.

Witness Tree is a 51-acre vineyard and winery just northwest of Salem, in the Eola Hills growing region. The moderate size allows winemaker Steven Westby to produce solely estate-bottled wines, and still handle each microclimate separately in the vineyard and the winery. The stately oak tree on the label stands in the vineyard. It once marked one corner of the original pioneer land claim in the 1854 survey. My guess is that the guy who drives the tractor came up with the designation “Chainsaw” for this cuvée. Witness Tree self-distributes its wine in the Portland area. The wines are also sold online via Northwest Wines To You, an online retailer which partners with a number of small Oregon wineries.

There’s lots of hype about 2009 Beaujolais as well, with prominent producers claiming that it’s the best vintage in decades. It was warmer than usual that year, so most of the wines have unusual weight and darker fruits. However, the grapes retained good acidity and reached an even ripeness, keeping the bright character that I love about Beaujolais. It’s the kind of year when winemakers say the wine just made itself.

Because the mainstream producers crop heavily, then use roter-fermenters and carbonic maceration (mechanical tricks that extract gobs of fruit and often give then wine a banana and bubble gum aroma), Beaujolais has been unfashionable for a while. The press around 2009 has encouraged more wine drinkers to experiment with these well-priced wines. The cru, or single-village, Beaujolais are just starting to arrive, but most of them seem to need a few more months to evolve. Don’t hesitate to stick a few bottles away in your cellar; they age incredibly well and develop Burgundy-like complexity.

There’s not so much as one stick of bubble gum in the Domaine Joel Rochette Beaujolais-Villages 2009 (about $15 retail). It’s all about the fruit, especially fresh-from-the-market Bing cherries with a handful of sweet summer blueberries mixed in. While at first sip you’ll be wowed with all that fruit, it’s worth a deeper look. A subtle spice weaves through the cherry/berry goodness, pulling in a note of minerally earth and a red-floral perfume. It has a silkiness intrinsic to Gamay, but it also shows some youthful grip. This is the kind of wine to drink just because it tastes good. It’s easy to drink, but it’s not without character and terroir. It’s nice to sit down with a red that doesn’t need a big steak (although a bistro-style steak frites would go well). Simple fresh pastas, chicken roasted with garlic and herbs, or a salad tossed with some pancetta or ham and just a bit of cheese would all pair perfectly with this lovely red. Domaine Rochette is distributed in Portland by   C & G Wines.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    Nice article, Toni, and your views perfectly echo the cries I heard from winemakers at yesterday’s Chehalem Mountain tasting, “drink our 2009s, they are ready!” Love the Ayres stuff, now I’ll have to try that Chainsaw bottling. Cheers, Darryl

  2. Jerry D. Murray says

    Further complicating the issue is “where” in a wines life consumers like thier wine to be. If forward fruit is your hearts desire then 2007 never had a chance to be “great”, however more patient consumers that like something “interesting” with thier fruit would now find many 2007’s to be fantastic. Wamer vintages like 2003, 2006 or 2009 may only have the potential to appeal to the “forward fruit” crowd as many of these wine will lack the qualities conducive to positive evolution.

    Making declarations about the quality of a vintage has to be taken in the context of a “snapshot”, each taste only reflects where the wine is at that time and not where it was or where it will be.
    Thanks for taking this subject on, Nice Post!
    Jerry D. Murray
    Van Duzer Vineyard

  3. Marshall Manning says

    Nice article, Toni, and it echos my opinions about those who focus too much on one “hot” vintage without thinking about the prime drinkability of those wines. In the past, when vintages were more variable, the riper vintages were the ones to look for. But, as many wine regions seem to be facing warmer weather on the average, sometimes these big vinages (2003 & 2006 in OR or 2009 in Beaujolais) create wines that are on the big, ripe edge for many wine drinkers, myself included. Yes, the 2009 Cru Beaujolais are ripe, big wines, but for those who prefer a bit more elegance and less over fruit, the 2008s may be better wines. Too many times people read (and buy) into vintage hype without considering their likes and dislikes, only buying what a reviewer says is the “vintage of the century”.

    • Toni says

      Agreed, Marshall. You make a sound point that those 2009 crus may just drink better sooner rather than later, while the 2008s should cellar very well. All the posts here are such great insight into the topic!

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