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A Country for Old Pinots

It began in the tasting room at Eyrie Vineyards and ended at a dinner of French vintners who now make wine in “Oregogne.” As the emptied bottles of wines from Oregon and Burgundy surpassed the full ones, it was time for these sons of France to sing that oldie-but-goodie Burgundian anthem, “The La La Song,” led by Jean-Nicolas Méo and Bruno Corneaux.

I was in Oregon a few days ago for the third annual Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Auction in Newberg, and the first stop was at Eyrie, founded by the late David Lett, who is credited with planting the first Pinot Noir in the state in 1965. On the tasting sheet, there was a blank for a library selection in the last spot of a seven-wine, $20 flight. It turned out to be a Pinot Lett made in 1986 and is thus now 32 years old.

The fruit was seductively mellow if showing its age, but it was still a very enjoyable wine because of its structure – lean with good freshness of acidity.  It reminded me of an old man, a little worse for the wear, but still with a stiff spine and chin erect.

That was the first of several fabulous older Oregon Pinots I would taste over the two days leading up to the auction of 2016 special lots. It is a given that, with red wines especially, the ability of a region’s wine to age well is a mark of area’s greatness, and the Willamette has proven that it’s a country for old Pinots.

The following morning there was a symposium and blind tasting of wines of the last 10 vintages, and the early ones from 2007 and the 2008 still had remarkable freshness. This was followed by walk-around tasting of a few dozen wineries, many of which decided to feature an older wine along with the new. The evening before the auction, a half-dozen wineries which either were owned by Burgundians or who had Burgundy-trained winemakers or consultants hosted a dinner at Laurent Montalieu’s Soléna Estate. While not exactly a paulée, bottles of older Oregon Pinots and Burgundies from back home kept popping out of containers tucked under tables.

Of course, it is well-know now that Oregon in general and the Willamette Valley in particular is a great place to grow Pinots that have ethereal fruitiness, a certain leanness, a touch here and there of gaminess and great finishing acidity. These traits first drew the Californians, then the French and lately veterans of the West Coast tech industry who have great cash flow.

Unfortunately, the reason these older Pinots are still available is partly because it took a while in the early years for collectors to discover them, then the Great Recession took its toll on fine wine sales in general. 

But no more. Older Oregon Pinots are available, and they are tasting great. You just need to go find them.

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