Toasting Oregon pinot noir

The critics have weighed in from every conceivable angle, and the results seem to be unanimous.

The 2008 vintage for Oregon pinot noir is superb.

While we on the wine panel occasionally enjoy the contrarian’s role in this instance we must join in the acclaim.

Indeed, the 2008 vintage for Oregon pinot noir is terrific.

Whether you call the vintage superb, terrific, excellent or the superlative of your choice, it’s legitimate to ask, what does such praise mean?

The answer may seem obvious: The wines are excellent, or many of them are, at least. But beyond that, a great vintage is not so obviously a great thing for consumers.

For example, the 2005 vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy were considered spectacular, and what did that mean? The wines are great, or they will be one day.

Many need quite a few more years before they will be ready to drink.

But for their potential, the wines fetched high prices, maybe even record prices, at least until the next great vintage.

For wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy, the great vintages are often best for collectors, investors or those with the time, patience, storage and disposable income to give them the required aging.

Smart consumers without interest in investing or long-term aging are often better served with good rather than great vintages, which will offer more immediate pleasure at a cheaper price.

All this said, the ‘08 Oregon pinot noirs transcend these rules of thumb. They will reward in 10 years or so of aging, but many of them will still give a great deal of pleasure now.

They are not all expensive – our recent tasting of 20 bottles focused on the lower tier of wines from the Willamette Valley rather than single-vineyard wines, reserve cuvees and the like.

Our 10 favorites were all under $50, and five of those were under $30.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Joshua Nadel, the beverage director at Locanda Verde and at the Dutch, soon to open in Manhattan, and Braithe Tidwell, the wine director at Union Square Cafe.

As a group, these wines were consistently top-notch.

They were balanced and well structured by virtue of their lively acidity.

They were full of delicious red-fruit flavours without being syrupy, over the top or, to use the dreaded phrase of wine marketers, “fruit forward.”

They offered the rare combination of fruitiness and restraint. Most of them will be versatile with food. They are “nonsteroidal pinot noirs,” as Joshua put it.

What made the vintage so good?

An uncharacteristically dry September and October, with warm days and cool nights, allowed grapes to achieve ripeness without sacrificing the freshness provided by good acidity.

In contrast to very hot years, 2008 produced alcohol levels that are fairly moderate.

All of our favourite wines were listed at 13 to 14 per cent. Joshua described it as “cool-climate pinot noir from a ripe vintage,” which is pretty much the ideal.

Different producers have different aims. The vintage allowed producers to make wines in the styles they favour.

I tend to prefer restraint, balance, structure and subtlety in Pinot Noirs, and the panel largely agreed with me.

People who prefer concentrated fruit flavours will not be disappointed with a wine like Beaux Freres Ribbon Ridge Vineyard, which did not make our top 10 and, at $70, was the most expensive in our tasting.

They may also enjoy the Ken Wright Meredith Mitchell Vineyard ($45), another wine full of upfront fruit.

Our No. 1 bottle was the Belle Pente Willamette Valley, beautifully balanced, well coiled with acidity and harmonious on the palate, with complex aromas of mint, red fruit, flowers and smoke.

At $23, it was our best value. Our No. 2 bottle was the fresh, vibrant WillaKenzie Willamette Valley, which combined intriguing, exotic fruit aromas with an earthiness on the palate.

These two wines were followed closely by the lively, structured Adelsheim Willamette Valley, and the complex, harmonious Et Fille Willamette Valley.

The 2008 vintage is excellent. But the quality of the wines is due to more than just the vintage conditions.

With each year of experience, winemakers in Oregon become better at understanding the combination of climate, vineyard and cellar work necessary to produce good wines.

Sure, the 2008s are superb.

But if the prices start rising, remember that the 2007s were pretty good, too.

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