One of the highlights of this year’s Central Otago Pinot Celebration came on the final morning. Earlier editions of the Celebration had apparently incorporated a feature tasting of a major overseas Pinot Noir region. This year it was the turn of the Willamette Valley, Oregon.
All of these wines were donated by the producers. So a huge “Thank You” upfront to them. Generally speaking, few Oregon Pinots Noir are available in New Zealand, though this was not always the case. It used to possible to buy Domaine Drouhin here, albeit that this was in their nascent years. And I was fortunate to be able to try Adelsheim and Archery Summit here courtesy of winemaking friends. While another friend, who did a little wine importing from the States, was able to source some of the early vintages of Beaux Freres.
Back to the tasting in Queenstown. I had already tasted at least a couple of these wines previously. In May 2017, I was very very fortunate to gain a place on the Institute of Masters of Wine study tour to Washington and Oregon. If you are talking Pinot Noir in Oregon, mostly you are talking about the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland. There is Pinot grown outside the Willamette, but it is early days yet. And within the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) there are six distinct sub AVAs: Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Chehalem Mountains. There are proposals for further sub AVAs within the Willamette, most notably that of the Van Duzer Corridor, a subregion near a gap in the western ranges that lets cool air in from the Pacific.
One of the most interesting tastings we had last May was a blind tasting designed to highlight the differences between the six AVAs, if there are any. My take home was that, yes, some of the AVA characters are more distinctive than others, certainly the more established wineries highlight those between AVA differences more than newer producers (and I may expand on this in a future post.)
The tasting in Queenstown however was not blind and, apart from wine eight, locale was not a major topic for discussion. The wines were served in two flights of four wines each, with a lengthy analysis moderated by Elaine Chukan Brown (a Sonoma based writer) and two winemakers, Adam Campbell of Elk Cove and Sam Tannahill who, in conjunction with his wife, owns the Francis Tannahill label, but also makes wine for Rex Hill and A to Z Wineworks. Unfortunately Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom Wines was not able to make it to Otago due to illness.
Chukan Brown characterised Flight 1 as representing “where Oregon has come from”, whereas Flight 2 as “where Oregon is going to”. If that is so, then the choice is very clear for me. The first flight was the more impressive, all four wines show great typicite, while still, each in their own way, representing the winemaker’s own style. Hence the Eyrie has a lightness and elegance, whereas Bergstrom shows more power and intensity.
Though some of the wines in the second flight are potentially more controversial, there was one wine that I was especially impressed by, but generally the quality was uneven, the winemaking less sure of itself.
Eyrie Outcrop Pinot Noir 2014 (Dundee Hills)
Heightened berry aromatics, underpinned with a delicate forest floor tone, and just a whiff of spice. Nice bright acidity, the tannins are sinewy, but the overall palate impression is of a silky texture, framed in a taut, lithe structure. A precise, focussed wine with years ahead of it. Beautiful. If you ever get the opportunity to taste Eyrie Pinot – grab it immediately.
Elk Cove Mount Richmond Pinot Noir 2014 (Yamhill-Carlton)
A big switch up, this is dark, dense, brooding, a solid, intense style, displaying sweet fruit, still very tight however. That fruit richness (rhubarb? plum?) also evident in the mouth, which is meaty and gamey, so starting to show some secondary development, but a strong, powerful wine needing another year or two to fully hit its straps.
Bergstrom Silice Pinot Noir 2015 (Chehalem Mountains)
Very primary fruit, rich cherry or blueberry, an attractive sweet and sour element here, but accompanied with a dusty, warm note. Hints at reduction, this is a very youthful wine, the palate full and powerful, slightly unyielding in terms of flavour, however boasting a gorgeous silky texture. I would love to see this fascinating wine in another two or three years (later I noted the Bergstrom was sealed with a Diam 10 – as was a bottle of JJ Confuron I opened recently – I will have more to say about closure choice in future posts.)
Francis Tannahill The Hermit Pinot Noir 2014 (Dundee Hills)
Another unevolved, tight wine, concentrated wine, again dense and concentrated, perhaps showing more of a forest floor, earthy complexity, the fruit more in the dusty, dark berry spectrum. Linear and tight in the mouth, the key word here is restraint, while there is masses of rich, spicy fruit, the combined impression is of a structured, taut wine that needs time to open out. Impressive.
Brooks Janus Pinot Noir 2014 (Willamette Valley)
A wild, sauvage character on the nose, lots of secondary development, this is earthy and savoury, rustic and smoky. More of the fruit shows through in the mouth, which is plummy and spicy, accompanied by svelte tannins. A complex, savoury wine which one of my winemaking friends labelled “A grab bag of winemaking faults”, but still enjoyable, not polished, but textural and funky.
Antica Terra Antikythera Pinot Noir 2014 (Eola-Amity Hills)
The nose here shows sweetness and richness, reminiscent of old school Central Pinot, or perhaps even some Californian Pinots Noir, ripe, berryish and firm structured, with dark chocolate characters and uncomplicated, primary fruit. Some commentators complimented this wine on its “spontaneity” but I get totally the opposite impression, certainly it is intense, but also chunky, a little simple and four square.
Walter Scott Sojourner Pinot Noir 2015 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Delicate, perfumed nose here, floral and nuanced. Relatively unevolved in the mouth, some juicy strawberry fruit and chewy yet fine tannins. The texture is both svelte and elegant at the same time. A tight, youthful wine, pretty and polished, the most impressive of the second flight (that winemaking mate questioned whether this was “too pristine” – guess you cannot have it both ways!)
Day Johan Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 (Willamette Valley)
Deep colour, there is a confected, pastille quality to the fruit, spice and cherry liqueur characters, another upfront, fruity, unevolved style. But the palate is lighter than the others, fresher, some lean tannins and sappy grip. This site is in one of the coolest spots in the Willamette Valley, close to the Van Duzer Corridor – reflected in the shape and personality of the wine.