A truly great 2008 for pinot noir

Of the News-Register

The New York Times came late to the party, but it still was welcome news when the nation’s most revered newspaper put its precious accolades in print. The Times January 2011 article about Oregon’s 2008 Oregon vintage was titled, "Tasting a Vintage With Few Quibbles."

Here are some excerpts from a story slathered with superlatives:

"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. In this instance, we must join in the acclaim. Indeed, the 2008 vintage for Oregon pinot noir is terrific."

A tasting of 2008s from 20 Oregon producers resulted in a top 10 ranking in the following order: Belle Pente Willamette Valley $23, WillaKenzie Willamette Valley $27, Adelsheim Willamette Valley $26, Et Fille Willamette Valley $23, Owen Roe The Kilmore Yamhill-Carlton District $40, Soter Yamhill-Carlton District $45, Cristom Mount Jefferson Cuvee Willamette Valley $27, Broadley Vineyards Estate-Sundance Barrel Selection Willamette Valley $40, Antica Terra Willamette Valley $48 and Benton Lane Willamette Valley $22.

The New York Times tasting panel said:

"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 flavors without being syrupy, over the top or fruit-forward. They offered the rare combination of fruitiness and restraint. Most of them will be versatile with food. They are non-steroidal pinot noirs."

Ever since wine pundits began wrapping their lips around early 2008 releases, the accolades have been effusive.

Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator Oregon beat writer and editor at large, was one of the first of the big-name wine writers to take note of Oregon 2008s in a big way. In his April 2010 blog post, he gave the '08 vintage a perfect 100 points across the board.

This is high praise from the industry's most influential wine magazine, where a 90-plus rating is coveted by winemakers around the world. He did express one concern, though.

"What distinguishes this vintage for me … is how transparent, pure and clear these wines can be. They do that trick peculiar to pinot noir, balancing a wide array of flavors on a relatively fragile frame … For me, this makes for great wine, because it can deliver complexity, harmony and depth without great weight. Most of the 2008s are labeled with alcohol levels in the low- to mid-13s … And that's why I wonder whether these wines might turn off wine drinkers accustomed to higher alcohols, more density and plusher textures.”

Steiman's commentary is something of a paradox in that he praises the vintage to the high heavens, while at the same time fretting that a lot of tasters will brush past the very subtleties and complexities that make it so exceptional. Better he should have admonished them for allowing themselves to be deceived by components that overwhelm the tastebuds with massiveness rather than entice them with elegance.

The real measure of where the hearts and minds of Wine Spectator's tasting panel lies is how many 2008 Oregon pinot noirs they reward with scores in the mid to high 90s, or perhaps even a perfect 100.

Longtime Wine Spectator contributor Matt Kramer, a former Oregonian wine columnist, recognized 2008's merits early on. Choosing, as he often does, to focus on a single wine, Kramer selected Russ Raney's 2008 from Evesham Wood.

"The quality of this wine,” he wrote, “is surely a function of the 2008 vintage, which was a cliffhanger year with poor spring flowering reducing the size of the eventual crop. September's cool and cloudy weather retarded the critical ripening. But October was a godsend: warm, sunny and blessedly free from rain. Growers who waited - and many did - were rewarded with well-ripened grapes with fully-evolved flavors as opposed to mere sugar levels.”

Even the California-centric San Francisco Chronicle couldn't hold back its enthusiasm when it weighed in the following year. In his The Chronicle Recommends column, Jon Bonne said, “2007 Oregon pinots live up to the hype - ripe, powerful with clear flavors."

In a November 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dan Posner of the Grapes Wine Co. of White Plains, N.Y., said: "The 2008 Oregon pinots really blew me away. I've never before come across a vintage like this."

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