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By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Several months ago we wrote a column that lamented the poor ageability of Oregon pinot noirs. As an example we offered an abysmal 4-year-old Ken Wright pinot noir we recently tasted. Unlike the long-distance runners in Burgundy, were the vaunted Oregon pinot noirs more like sprinters?

Shortly after that column we received an email from Andrew Falk who coincidentally was asking the same question after opening a few of his aged Oregon pinot noirs. He graciously invited us to join him in a tasting of several Oregon pinot noirs from the 1993 and 1994 vintages with the caveat that the wines could be a huge disappointment. So on a recent Saturday night our wives joined Andrew and his family wonderful dinner at their Davidsonville home.

Not many wine enthusiasts have a deep collection of Oregon pinot noirs. Andrew, a lawyer, once lived near Seattle when he did some legal work for Boeing. His outgoing personality and inquisitive nature led him to develop several close relationships with renown pinot noir producers in Oregon. It didn’t take long for him to amass a broad collection of that state’s pinot noirs.

So did Andrew’s pinot noirs confirm our suspicion that Oregon pinot noirs did not age well? Not only were we proven wrong, but we were astounded by how well the wines from two producers – Beaux Freres and Domaine Drouhin – were tasting.

Oregon was at the start of some revolutionary changes when Andrew bought these wines in the mid 1990s. Oregon was a relatively new wine growing region in the early 1990s and pioneers like winemakers David Lett and Dick Erath were still learning the impact of soil and pinot noir’s clones. Instead of making big and dark pinot noirs, they were aiming for more finesse to emulate the wines of Burgundy.

Most significantly, Domaine Drouhin – the first French-owned winery in Oregon – had just released its first pinot noir made entirely from estate-grown grapes. The 1992 Domaine Drouhin Laurene Pinot Noir was greeted with wide acclaim and many of Oregon’s pinot noir producers began to adopt the Burgundy model. While growers relied exclusively on the Pommard and Waderswill clones, Domaine Drouhin was the first in Oregon to plant the Dijon clone. According to Veronique Drouhin, the Dijon clones provided complexity to pinot noir. She has experimenting with different versions of clones and root stocks.

Drouhin said in an email that she fashioned the pinots after the burgundies she grew up with. “The world has a lot of wines that are big and structured and there are many good choices among them. But, pinot noir is not about dark color and heavy tannins. This grape variety has so much elegance and complexity to offer.”

She doesn’t think a wine with a big structure ages better – something New World pinot noir producers are just beginning to learn from Old World burgundy.

These fashionable Oregon pinot noirs were lighter in color and more elegant with balanced acidity. Others, however, followed a course set by Ponzi to make opulent, rich and fruit-forward wines. The distinction in style couldn’t be more apparent in tasting mature Domaine Drouhin alongside mature pinot noir from Beaux Freres. The latter was riper and hedonistic – a term often associated with wines that fit a popular profile embraced by wine critic Robert Parker Jr., one of the partners in this venture. What style is better is purely subjective, but we preferred the long-term outcome of the 1993 and 1994 Domaine Drouhin pinot noirs. These textured wines lived up to Burgundy’s elegance and the fruit was still alive – delicate but mature with floral aromas and mineral, barnyard, dried fruit flavors.

These two vintages were among the most challenging for Oregon’s young and still experimenting pinot noir producers. Argyle had teamed with Tim Mondavi to make pinot noir in 1993, but a late bloom in July scared off the California producer who wasn’t comfortable with Oregon’s challenging climate. Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles recently told the Wine Spectator that he offered to let Mondavi out of its contract and make the wine himself. Thanks to an Indian summer, the wines ripened nicely and Argyle – a sparkling wine producer up until then – had its first reserve pinot noir. It was also the year Gary Andrus opened Archery Summit in the Willamette Valley.

The cool 1993 vintage generally produced lighter pinot noirs while the hot and dry 1994 vintage produced pinots with more acid and alcohol. The differences between the vintages were apparent in the wines we tasted. Drouhin said she discovered that pinot noirs made from cooler years can be challenging, but they are usually more complex.

Admittedly, we tasted mature pinot noirs from two of the best producers in the Willamette Valley. How the others would fare in a similar tasting is questionable. A 1993 Seven Springs pinot noir from St. Innocent that Andrew poured was not nearly as good. The wine was drinkable, but the fruit dried and fading.

Drouhin said that they expected their pinot noirs to age 7-8 years when they launched Domaine Drouhin but “after 10 years we realized they had a lot more aging potential.” She says acidity is an important factor for ageability, which is why the 1994 we tasted was showing so well.

Drouhin’s current offerings of its estate pinot noir ($40) and its flagship Laurene ($65), are astounding wines equal to the task of aging. Collectors would be wise to lay down a few of these wines for future enjoyment.

 

 

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