Aging Gracefully

1983 Willamette Valley Pinots still showing plenty of life

It’s rare to see a dozen 1983 Pinot noirs, all but one from the Willamette Valley.
Five of the 16 lucky tasters. From left to right:  Judy Erdman, C.J. David, Dick Erath, Julie Reid, James “Doc” Wilson.

By Nathan Graves

This summer 16 lucky wine aficionados, from several Portland area wine appreciation groups, attended a special tasting of 11 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the spectacular 1983 vintage, the first to achieve a 90+ rating from the major wine rating services and the only vintage of that decade with that distinction. In fact, the 1983s are credited with putting Oregon Pinot Noir on the map after showing well during a 1985 competition between Pinot Noirs from Oregon and Burgundy, France.

During a luncheon, Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath declared to his fellow diners that he “thought the 1983 Pinot Noir is about ready to drink now.” The group concurred with Erath’s suggestion and began to organize a tasting of the vintage. Nathan Graves and Julie Reid volunteered to host the event at their home, planned for two weeks later. All the bottles shared belonged to private collections; most from John and Ann Kelly; two from Richard Stinson and Judy Erdman, and one contributed by Dick Erath and C.J. David.

The tasting of 1983 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs included:

Peter F. Adams (later known as Adams Vineyard Winery)

Oak Knoll Winery Vintage Select

Arterberry Winemakers Reserve

Elk Cove Vineyards Reserve

Rex Hill Vineyards Dundee Hills

Sokol Blosser Winery Red Hills Yamhill County

Rex Hill Vineyards Archibald Vineyards

Sokol Blosser Winery Hyland Vineyards

Veritas Vineyard

Knudsen Erath Vintage Select Yamhill County

Adelsheim Vineyard, Willamette Valley

Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Series (a “ringer” from California)

The wines were blind-tasted (in the order listed) in three separate flights. All were decanted prior to sampling. After everyone had tasted and discussed the wines, the bottles and wineries were revealed. A couple bottles showed minor ullage, a result of evaporation and cork absorption. After removing the foil capsules, four had damp, discolored or slightly moldy cork tops. Cork conditions ranged from nearly pristine to completely disintegrating, requiring removal in several pieces.

Nearly all the wines from Oregon had a pleasant, soft and pretty nose typical of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Wine flavors tasted remarkably similar, with some distinctively more vibrant than others. All possessed classic Willamette Valley Pinot Noir flavors, including cherry and raspberry. An impressive amount of fruit was still available on the palate. Interestingly, most exhibited very little earthiness (common with wines from the Willamette Valley). Only two bottles displayed subtle earthy characteristics.

All wines revealed good acidity with little minerality. While tannins had mellowed, the wines still showed surprising complexity. Only one was corked to some degree. As the group expected, the California Pinot Noir exhibited a significantly different nose and palate compared to those from Oregon. Sadly, tasters described it as “tired” and suffering from a loss of fruit, structure and acidity.

Amazingly, the wines with corks that appeared moldy or disintegrating did not show poorly on the nose or palate. Those tasted in the later flights had no signs of oxidation, even after being opened for more over an hour. Most continued to improve with exposure to oxygen— over the course of a couple hours— an indication they still have several more years of life.

This group’s favorite wine was the 1983 Knudsen Erath Vintage Select Pinot Noir. Not surprisingly, the wine was featured on the cover of the March 1984 issue of the Wine & Spirits Magazine Buying Guide. It also was one of the highest-ranking wines in the 1985 competition between Oregon and Burgundy Pinot Noir.

Our tasting group had the privilege of sampling two bottles of this wine; one brought by the Eraths and the other by the Kellys. Peter F. Adams, Oak Knoll and Veritas also ranked well with our tasters.

We felt quite fortunate to have experienced these rare wines. This tasting further reinforced our collective conviction that Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages can be enjoyed for many, many years.

Follow this link to read more about the 1985 wine tasting competition:

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