Mountain Do

By Karl Klooster

The Monday of March 29 was a day designed to keep even rain-resistant Oregonians at home. Despite the deluge, eager members of the wine community crowded into the Rex Hill Winery for a special trade tasting put on by Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers.

In recent years, winery and grower groups throughout the state have begun holding annual events to showcase their latest releases. And this has always been one of the best. The group consists of vineyards growing grapes in the Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge AVAs and wineries relying on those grapes.

The two AVAs encompass more than 1,400 acres of vineyard land extending from Parrett Mountain at the eastern end, across the southern slopes of the Chehalem Range to its western culmination on Ribbon Ridge. The acreage is planted primarily to Pinot Noir, which finds the sparse, mineral-rich sedimentary, volcanic and loess soils a very favorable environment. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gamay Noir and Gewürztraminer also do well there.

A total of 30 wineries poured selected wines, primarily from the 2007 and 2008 vintages. For this writer, it afforded a final chance to evaluate and compare 2007 Pinot Noirs from some top producers.

As those who follow the industry know, Oregon's 2007 vintage has met with mixed reviews. The best examples are turning out to be wines of finesse and refinement, whose most admirable attributes lie in delicate balance and subtly complex flavors.

On the negative side, some were lacking in fruitiness, which threw the wines out of balance. As a consequence, the tannins became assertively drying and bitter, and the acids, rather than being fresh and lively, tasted tart and sour.

Fortunately, these problems did not characterize the wines at the Rex Hill tasting. In fact, the best ones I tasted were very good indeed. It should be said, of course, that tasting every one of the 124 wines in three hours would have been impossible. It should also be noted that the impressions presented here are strictly subjective.

Discussions with winery personnel and other attendees, as well as the sheer physical logistics of dealing with 30 pouring stations spread out over two levels, limited the number of wines that one had the opportunity to taste.

Not that such circumstances are unique to this tasting, by any means. Trade tastings are, by their nature, typically more about interaction than serious evaluation. Absent a sit-down, side-by-side tasting for comparative purposes, you make the most of opportunities as they are presented.

I decided at the outset to focus on 2007 Pinot Noirs. There were 43 being poured, and I figured I'd be lucky to taste half that many in the allotted time. Though irresistible temptation resulted in a few deviations along the way, I was able to sample 34 of the wines in all, including 21 of the '07 Pinots.

Six Pinots from 2008, two from 2006 and one from 2005 also passed pleasingly over my palate, along with two Chardonnays, a Viognier, a Riesling and even a white blend. That constituted the sum of my enological wayward ways that day.

Among the target group, sipping proof of unquestionably class acts included: Archery Summit's Looney Vineyard, de Lancellotti Family Vineyards Estate, Lachini's Family Estate, Laura Volkman's Jacob Estate and Le Cadeau's Côte Est. 

David Lett's deft touch, regardless of vintage, must be mentioned when evaluating these wines. His Pinots have always been about expressing the complex nuances of which Pinot Noir, more than any other red wine grape, is capable. Marrying that essential attribute with harmonious balance has proved out over the years in long-lived Eyrie Pinots. The roster features no blockbuster fruit bombs, impenetrable pigmentations or over-the-top tannins, just wines of elegance and grace.

The finest of the '07 Pinots from Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge, whether every winery intended it that way or not, look to be cut from the Eyrie cloth. If only more people possessed the patience to put them away for a while and allow maturity to work its magic.

Since 2007 and 2008 Pinot Noirs from the same wineries were being poured side by side, there could be no denying the differences in depth of color or concentration of flavor. The '08s still show youthful angularity, but there's a lot of "there" there.

In fact, many of the 25 Pinots from the 2008 vintage haven't even been formally released yet - some brought along for this occasion even bore handwritten labels.

The 2005 Carabella Inchinnan Pinot Noir was also trotted out for trade testing, as a special treat. No longer listed in the winery's sale inventory, it represents another example of how a vintage that was underrated initially on has blossomed with time in bottle. But you aren't likely to find any 2005s still left on retail shelves, and were you to be so lucky, you'd find the price adjusted accordingly.

The way to be able to enjoy the benefits of aging at a reasonable cost is to buy 'em young and lay 'em down yourself. No, you won't need to wait a decade. Four or five years, as the '05s are now proving, will usually do the trick.

Chardonnay is a white known to be rewarding after a year or two of bottle age. True to form, Adelsheim's 2007 Caitlin's Reserve Chardonnay displayed a lovely marriage of oak, pear and stone fruit. The '06 Chardonnay from K & M Wines showed rich, soft and stylish, obviously mellowed by its additional aging. And Anam Cara's 2008 Estate Riesling was very tasty, with round, minerally apple and citrus fruit enlivened by bright acidity.

All in all, it was an excellent showing from two of Oregon's premier AVAs. With 2008 coming up, and 2009 well on the way, next year should be even better. 

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