The Eyrie Vineyards are widely credited with the creation of Oregon as the Pinot Noir state of the USA. The state has just celebrated 50 years of growing grapes for one of the world’s most elusive wine styles, celebrated by Stephen Brook in his up-to-date tribute in the February 2012 edition of Decanter magazine. But as a recent tasting for Andover Wine Friends showed, there is much more to Eyrie Vineyards and Oregon than just attempting an American version of red Burgundy. In fact, two of the three wines that really impressed the tasting group were not Noir at all.
Following the publication of Grape Vines, Jancis, Julia and José’s tome of late 2012, we have to learn not to speak about Pinot Noir, Gris and Blanc as three different varieties. They are merely colour variations of the genetically identical Pinot variety. Skin colour is not a big deal in the grape geneticist’s world. If Pinot Noir flourishes in the relatively cool Pacific-influenced climate of the Willamette Valley, Oregon, it is, therefore, hardly a surprise that Pinot Blanc and Gris also do well. But we just don’t hear about them in the same way. Pinot Blanc 2010 is a limited bottling from Alsatian clones grown in the Three Sisters Vineyards which was planted in the 1980s and so now has some vine age. The ‘three sisters’ are the three colours of the Pinot variety! This is not the wine for you if you want something that is going to jump out of the glass at you. But if you want something which will complement a wide range of food, with mineral, ripe and green apple notes with a touch of peach, very fine acidity and good length you will enjoy this. It is good value at £14-75. (When the opened bottle was tasted two days later the nose had really developed with quite marked stone fruit notes.)
The real stars among the whites were the Pinot Gris and the Chardonnay, though there is a sting in the tail of the latter. I love Pinot Gris and this was a really outstanding example. The grapes come from all four Eyrie-owned vineyards, are fermented in stainless steel and, crucially, the young wine is kept on the lees until bottled. After five years, Pinot Gris 2007 was at a peak – but may yet be able to fly higher, like the red-tailed hawks which give the winery its name. Medium minus gold in colour from age, and evolved honey-scented, refined apple and melon fruit on the nose. In short, beautifully fragrant and integrated. In the mouth, the lees effect was more evident with the richness and fatness which lees contact and the passing of time can bring. A great savoury edge to wine with real palate weight but perfectly balanced. And all this for £12.80 …. The question we were left with was how much was this quality due to the Pinot Gris itself, and how much to the bottle age.
We loved the Chardonnay Reserve 2008 too. It is a vineyard and barrel selection, choosing the barrels which show deeper, richer and more complex flavours, as winery website says. The wine making details there are not detailed but it does state that the wine is aged for nine months on unstirred lees in a combination of neutral (ie older) and new French and Oregon oak barrels and then lightly filtered. This results in an extremely impressive, weighty and subtle Chardonnay: pale lemon in colour, a rich nose with layers of interest, good intensity of ripe fruit and a fine savoury yeastiness. (That yeastiness is subtle because of the decision not to stir up the lees.) A very fine wine – but one that does cost £29 and so it up against some pretty stiff competition from the great, mineral, white wines of Burgundy. Sadly for us, affluent American consumers like their Chardonnay too much.
We then turned our attention to the red wines, starting with a real rarity. Pinot Meunier is normally only experienced as a part of the Champagne blend. In other words, although it is a dusky red grape, its juice is used in white wine. Pinot Meunier 2009 had a very pale ruby colour, bright cherry and tinned strawberry nose, light palate with savoury flavours to the fore, medium grippy tannins and some length. Interesting rather than outstanding. The property’s two Pinot Noirs followed and there was a really marked contrast between them. Both are pale ruby, in other words, made in a Burgundian mould rather than the much deeper coloured versions of some Californian Pinot. Pinot Noir 2008 comes from the fruit of younger vineyards and is matured for 11 months in neutral oak barrels. It had a slightly musty nose, with a touch of volatile acidity and refined red berry fruit. The fruit showed well in the mouth but just lacked a bit of concentration. By contrast, Pinot Noir Reserve 2009 comes from forty-year-old vines on their own roots (phylloxera struck Oregon in the 1990s but this vineyard has clearly escaped it thus far). The fruit is completely destemmed and then fermented as whole berries in small bins with punching down four hours – real, small scale hands-on winemaking. Gently pressed the wines are fermented out and then aged in oak casks for two years in which they clarify naturally and the wines are bottled without fining or filtering. The result is a wine of great quality, a rich and beautiful nose of red berries married to attractive smoky and savoury qualities, a rich and supple palate with the fruit sweetness coming out on the long finish. The pronounced quality difference is due partly to vine age and partly to vintage, 2009 being a warmer, better year than 2008. Due to the same market factors, neither of these wines are inexpensive but we agreed that we would rather pay £38 for the latter than £24 for the former.
In general the wines of the Eyries Vineyards are marked by low intervention winemaking and resulting elegance, balance and subtle nuance. They are a classic example of how elegant, light to medium weight but balanced wines can be thrilling.
Alongside these Eyrie wines we also tasted a couple of others from the North West. Apart from ticking off ‘Idaho’ as a winemaking state, we didn’t particularly warm to Chardonnay, Vickers Vineyard, Idaho, 2008. The fruit is grown at an impressive 850m above sea level and showed some real tropical intensity balanced by acidity, but the oak was just so dominant making the wine that was medium minus gold in colour with butterscotch and vanilla the predominant impression. Perhaps after a few more years the fruit/oak competition may become a more even contest. By contrast Tempranillo, Abacela, Umpqua Valley, Oregon 2005 was a wine of real depth, some finesse and character. Although we are back in Oregon, the climate in Umpqua, 170 miles south of the Willamette Valley is more like Ribera del Duero than Beaune. Indeed that is precisely why Earl and Hilda Jones moved the thousands of miles from Florida to plant the Spanish variety they loved, the first planting of this variety in the Pacific North West. Oregon clearly continues to attract wine pioneers. Mid ruby in colour with first signs of garnet on the rim, this had fine quite powerful, fragrant fruit (from strawberry through to ripe blackcurrant) on the nose suggesting a warm climate. In something of a contrast the palate was lean and subtle, with high acidity and medium, chalky tannins. An impressive wine at a very good value £14.50. The oak regime here is very restrained: 94% French oak, 6% American of which just 14% is new and 26% second year, meaning that the time in oak changes the texture of the wine rather than adding flavours.
Overall this was a fascinating tasting of some splendid wines of real character. They have been chosen by and are available from Savage Selection, run by Mark Savage MW who roams the earth looking for growers and winemakers who aim for finesse and balance in the glass.