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Oregon Hater Decants and Recants

March 26, 1992|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

I really like Oregon Pinot Noirs.

I can imagine the skepticism of regular readers of this column, considering my past expressions of distaste for Oregon Pinots, but you'll just have to take my word. I'm a convert.

Like most "trust me" requests, this one requires a load of explanation. It starts with the longstanding hype that Oregon makes Holy Grail Pinot Noirs that are nearly as good as Burgundy, that elevate one to nirvana, etc.

I never bought any of that. Oregon Pinot Noirs have been variable and, in fact, generally mediocre, to say nothing of overpriced. Even in the best vintages, I have often found strange smells and tastes in the wine and other evidence of sloppy winemaking techniques.

And they didn't age well. Even three years was too old for some of these overblown, overworked, leaden wines. There may have been potential there, but the practice rarely showed it.

Yet Oregon has long produced exceptional Pinot Noir grapes. I discovered this in 1976 when I first wrote about the emerging Oregon wine country. The problem is, wine tasted out of the barrel and wine in the bottle are hugely different things, and until very recently, Oregon usually fumbled the ball after the fermentation stage.

Moreover, the variable climate of Oregon's Willamette Valley, where the majority of top wineries are located, makes for a lot of ho-hum vintages. A number of years in the early 1980s made only "blah" wines. Yet the prices charged crept up to, and in some cases over, the $20 line.

That is "ouch" territory for wine buyers who were then discovering that California's Carneros, Russian River, Santa Barbara and Anderson Valley areas also produced terrific Pinot Noirs, and at a fraction of the price.

The good news is that Oregonians have not sat around laughing at the rubes willing to shell out 20 smackers for junk. They have worked hard to improve their wines, and in the last couple of years have really begun to hit the nail squarely.

Now they are blessed with an exceptional harvest, 1989, and after repeated tastings of these wines I am convinced it is the best vintage of Oregon Pinot Noirs, across the board, I have ever tasted. It finally justifies all those glowing predictions.

Moreover, I am convinced that Oregon is not only on the right track with its winemaking but has learned something valuable about making great wine that French growers have known for generations: The best wines are made from the smaller harvests.

This isn't true for all grape varieties, but it seems mandatory for Pinot Noir, and 1989 in Oregon was a tiny crop. Just as the flowers were beginning to form in early spring, a freeze knocked a lot of them off. The resulting crop was small, which led to concentrated flavors in the wines.

Evaluating the 1989 Oregon Pinot Noirs was The Times' regular tasting panel, including industry consultant Michael Rubin and author Bob Thompson. Other panel members were Carneros region winemakers David Graves (Saintsbury) and Jill Davis (Buena Vista).

All wines were excellent examples of Pinot Noir, even those ranked down near the bottom. Note, too, that two California wines thrown in as ringers also scored well--and one of them (the Buena Vista, not identified by Davis during the tasting) is a bargain.

1. Domaine Drouhin, Oregon ($32): The most expensive Pinot Noir ever produced in Oregon, from a famous Burgundian house that moved in here five years ago. This second release is a superb example of freshness. A spicy and light jammy quality in the aroma and a classic "sweet oak" taste lead to a long and generous finish. Fine wine, mighty pricy.

2. Oak Knoll Winery, "Vintage Select," Willamette Valley ($18): Pleasing spiciness (cinnamon and clove) with excellent fruit and richness, despite lighter body. Lovely wine and not excessively priced.

3. Adelsheim Vineyard, Polk County, "Seven Springs Vineyard" ($20): Deeply concentrated blackberry fruit and oak fight each other for attention. Might have won the whole tasting had not one taster downgraded it for excessive tannin and oak. Very impressive effort. Just 415 cases produced.

4. Van Duzer Reserve, Willamette Valley ($16): This is an Oregon label owned by the Napa Valley's William Hill Winery, and it has hit gold here with superb strawberry/cranberry fruit and spice. There's a lot going on in this wine, and the good news is that 4,000 cases were produced, so it's widely available.

5. Five-way tie among Buena Vista, Carneros ($9); 1990 Lane Tanner, Santa Barbara ($22); Elk Cove, Wind Hill, Willamette Valley ($25); Bethel Heights Reserve, Willamette Valley ($18); Ponzi Reserve, Willamette Valley ($15).

Buena Vista: Burgundian fruitiness with spice and a trace of earth; dense flavors of blackberry and a long, complete finish. Widely available. Great value.

Lane Tanner: The only 1990 wine in the tasting, showing its youth but also very impressive complexity of cherry, cranberry and rhubarb fruit, earthy elements and Chinese Five Spice notes. Great potential.

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