The on-going contest over the best pinot noir still features Burgundy and the latest challenger, Oregon. Two fortuitous tastings held recently in the nation's capital illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of the two rivals, as well as the lingering futility of comparing them.
The first tasting, set up by Les Amis du Vin, presented the wines of Antonin Rodet, the ne'gociant from Burgundy. The reds were all from the 1985 vintage, which was one of the best in Burgundy and produced some classic pinots with lots of fruit and good aging potential.
With Rodet's wines, however, taste was overwhelmed by price. The burgundies started as low as $8, for a nice, light bourgogne, but the wine didn't get interesting until it reached about $35 a bottle. At that price you could buy the Pommard Grand Clos des Epenots or the Gevrey-Chambertin Lavaux St.-Jacques, both of which have full red-fruit flavors and considerable depth.
Rodet's Clos Vougeot weighed in at $49 -- a fresh, medium-bodied pinot that lacked the complexity of the Gevrey- Chambertin. Then came the Ruchottes- Chambertin at $55 a bottle -- a delicate, well-balanced wine with some tannin. The audience expressed dismay at the cost, and Bertrand Devillard, president of Rodet, commented on "the American habit of always asking the price." Presumably Frenchmen don't care what wine costs or, if they do, are too polite to inquire. They just cough up their money and carry their Chambertin home in briefcases discreetly chained to their wrists.
Finally we were granted an audience with the '85 Grands Eche'zeaux, a great, deeply flavorful wine with truly fabulous body, depth and length. As impressive as the wine was, a certain breathless apprehension awaited its price.
"Please remain seated," joked Devillard. The Grands Eche'zeaux would sell for $65, he said, but we might be able to find it for as little as $64 a bottle.
Burgundy seems in danger of becoming the foremost producer of mummy wines -- wines that, too expensive to buy and too expensive to drink if you own them, sit in the cellar for eternity. Someday they might make a great traveling exhibit for the archeologically inclined.
The prices of the Oregon pinot noirs presented a few days later by the Decanter Club were relatively impoverished. All the wines came from the Willamette Valley, and all but one were of the '85 vintage, a very good one in Oregon as well as in Burgundy.
It would please me to be able to say that at an average of $15 a bottle the Oregon team stunned the Burgundians, but I can't. These wines were so different from the French as to raise all the old questions about soils and climes, and the improbability of successful replication of red burgundy outside France.
The '85 Oregon pinots were, in order of appearance, Bethel Heights, Adams, Adelsheim, Sokol Blosser and Yamhill Valley. Pinot noir is a shy producer and usually a difficult grape from which to extract color without also picking up too much tannin. The Oregon pinots, however, were all deeply colored and sometimes downright inky.
In general, they were marked by a shyness of fruit, rather than of pigment. Oregon pinots have the reputation of slow development once the bottle is open. These corks were pulled at least two hours before the tasting, and the glasses were filled 45 minutes before they were raised, but the rich, red pinot fruit, if it was there, stayed out of sight.
My favorite was the Adelsheim, which had a powerful nose and considerable subtlety. At $15, the wines were certainly cheaper than burgundy, but $15 is still a hefty price for unyielding pinot that may or may not develop into something grand. The other common problem with the Oregon pinots was excess wood. I suspect that the Oregonian winemakers are currently in an oaky rut similar to that dug in California a decade ago, when many chardonnays had such overtones of the 2-by-4 that the taste of the grape was eclipsed. Less wood in the Willamette Valley will build a better future.
Unfortunately, two of the best pinots made in the Willamette Valley -- those of Eyrie Vineyards and Oak Knoll winery -- were missing from the lineup. We were treated at the end of the tasting to an '81 Eyrie -- a rich, developed wine with good fruit and body. Eyrie wines are so sought after that none of the '85 could be found -- they are, in other words, as scarce as good burgundy. ::