In Oregon, back-to-back vintages show the subtle difference a year can make

Columnist May 15

It’s fashionable today to argue that vintages don’t matter, because winemaking has improved around the world to the point that wines can be consistently good from year to year.

But then we might as well drink beer — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

Wine’s hold on our fascination stems from its sheer variety and the different expressions a vineyard can produce from a rainy spring, a hot and humid summer or a cool fall. Think of winemakers as our favorite baseball sluggers facing Nature’s curveballs — hail, frost, rain, drought, ladybugs, stink bugs and various types of mildew and rot. The “vintages don’t matter” argument arises because today’s vintners rarely strike out. But they may hit a home run or a double off the wall. Even a sacrifice fly can score a run. It’s always exciting.

Which brings us to Oregon, which presents an exciting opportunity to taste and compare stylistic differences between two years that illustrate why wines from the Beaver State, and even wine in general, can be so fascinating.

From one perspective, Oregon has had a string of good vintages the past several years, making it a reliable choice for pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. That doesn’t mean vintages are irrelevant. Year-to-year differences are more than subtle, especially with two very fine vintages now on the market: the elegant 2011s and the newly arriving, opulent 2012s.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley experienced its longest growing season and latest harvest on record in 2011. Cool temperatures vexed vintners worried that autumn rains would arrive before the grapes fully ripened. But the weather stayed dry, and when the grapes were ready to pick in November, winemakers celebrated. Yields were low, and the early buzz from the wine media was that 2011 would be a lighter-than-average vintage. But the wines have been spectacular.  

In 2012, Nature didn’t throw a curveball — rather, it was a fat pitch down the middle of the plate. The season was ideal from start to finish, with even ripening and good yields matching quantity with quality. The wines are a bit richer than the ’11s, a bit more friendly. The ’11s will make you sit up and take notice, while the ’12s will make you smile.

When I visited the Willamette Valley last summer, winemaker Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery was ecstatic about the quality of his 2012s, which were still in barrel. “Don’t write about them, though,” he teased me. “I still need to sell the ’11s.” He needn’t have worried. His 2011 pinot noirs and chardonnays were fantastic.

“I think of 2012 as the second coming of 2008,” said Harry Peterson-Nedry, referring to the last vintage Nature hadn’t thrown Oregon any curveballs. He is the founder of Chehalem winery and was in Washington last month for Pinot in the City, a trade and consumer tasting sponsored by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. The tasting served as an introduction for many of the 2012 Oregon wines to the Washington area market.

Vintners are always happy to have an ideal year that produces high-quality wines that will sell well, but they also take special pride in the challenging years.

“I’m not a believer that the easy vintages are always the best,” said Jason Lett, winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards, who was pouring an outstanding pinot gris, pinot blanc and pinot noir from the 2012 vintage. “But in this case, perhaps the excitement is warranted. For drinking now, though, I like the ’11s.”

As far as I’m concerned, I’ll happily drink either vintage. Oregon has hit two home runs.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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