For lovers of pinot noir, the 2008 vintage from Willamette Valley presents an opportunity to enjoy the best wines from the region’s forty-year history. My annual visit to Willamette Valley this past July while attending the International Pinot Noir Celebration allowed me to taste quite a few 2008 Pinot Noirs and talk with the winemakers. None of the producers I talked to could name a better vintage.The hype machine about the 2008 vintage was turned on early, right after harvest, and it has not relented. In this instance, embrace the hype. Having been a big fan of Oregon pinot for nearly all my wine drinking years, reference point Willamette pinot vintages that compare to 2008 are 1994, 1999 and 2002. But, with better raw materials from older vines, tighter spacing, lower yields and a perfect growing season, 2008 Willamette Pinots are the apex of what is possible today for pinot noir in the new world.
My own tasting notes the past few months from the early releases define the 2008 Willamette pinots as a hypothetical blend of the ripeness and power of the 2006 pinots with the clarity and finesses of the 2007 wines. Benefiting from lower alcohols than the 2006s, combined with 2007s brighter acids, the 2008s I have tasted show sappy and upfront red and black fruits framed with juicy acids resulting in wines of impeccable balance and ageability.
David Millman, General Manager at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, said “2008 is a benchmark year for Oregon Pinot Noir, the kind of year that generates a lot of excitement. Best of all, the wines are classic Oregon, with beautiful fruit, earthiness, lower alcohols, good acidity and great ageing potential.” Domaine Drouhin’s less expensive Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2008 is available right now and is a wonderful expression of the dusty red cherries flavors found in their Dundee Hills vineyard. With anticipation, I wait for their barrel selection, the Laurene, to be released from the 2008 vintage.
One of my best-loved producers, Doug and Melissa Tunnel of Brick House, have sold out of all four of their 2008 Pinots. Unlike many others, Brick House releases their wines early. Most 2008s are about to be released now or in the coming months. Always transparent with elegant precision, Brick House wines represent their vintage extremely well. Worth the search, Brick House Boulder Block Pinot Noir 2008 is still available at local retailers and some of Santa Fe’s finer restaurants.
One of my favorite visits each year is with Michael Etzel of Beaux Freres. He said, “Everyone seems to be interested in Oregon’s 2008 vintage. The Spectator is rumored to have given it a 100-point vintage in the next
edition.” While Etzel said 2008 is old news, he did with my urging “clear the cobwebs of [his] mind” and tell me “It all began with the growing season of 2008. The flowering was just right. Not too good and not too loose. Guessing, about a 50 to 60 percent success in the flowering. Which produces nice small clusters that are loose enough to allow berry expansion. Finished cluster weights were 85 grams, unlike 2007 with cluster weights of 135 or so.” Looser clusters allow for even ripening of all grapes.
Etzel went on to give kudos to the growing season, saying it “was moderate, not too much heat, rain or cool days. This permitted the grapes to get fully ripe seeds stems and the skin of the grape. The week of September 1st, we had rain all weekend. Then the warm fall season began. The rain was just enough to give the plants that shot in the arm to carry on the ripening process. We began picking young vines on Wednesday September 29th. Everything was picked by October 18th. Ferments were native and behaved very well. They aged well and now two years later they are showing what a good childhood will do for later development.”
Beaux Freres produces three Pinot Noirs each year – their entry level Willamette Valley, their estate Beaux Freres Vineyard and the Uppper Terrace Pinot noir. I buy four bottles of each from every vintage. Just the other night, while celebrating the second anniversary of Vinaigrette Restaurant with Philip de Give and John Grimm of Bacchus Wine & Spirits, we popped a 1999 Beaux Freres Vineyard Pinot Noir and we found it ageing extremely well, showing complexity from bottle age but still maintaining lovely primary fruit.
In summary, the 2008 Willamette Valley growing season was nearly perfect from bud break to harvest, with an even growing season in between and a protracted, rain-free September and October. Daytime temperatures during the fall were typically warm and nighttime temperatures often dropped into the 40s, which helped the grapes retain their natural acidity without a jump in sugars. This later-than-normal harvest allowed growers to bring in grapes at optimal ripeness.
Other producers available in our market that I have my eye on, waiting for their 2008 Pinot releases are Adelsheim, Cristom, Elk Cove and Ponzi. Having gone through all my 1994s, most my 1999s and half of my 2002 pinot noirs from my favorite producers in Willamette, the release of the marvelous 2008s will allow me to purchase a few assorted cases to guarantee future pinot drinking pleasure.