When you’re running to get out of the rain almost every day in spring or suffering through the heat during a long, humid summer, your thoughts may not immediately wander to how the weather will affect the taste of your evening glass of wine.
But it does.
Recently I had the privilege of trying 11 Pinot Noir wines that were produced from 1990–1999 and what I discovered about the weather’s impact on these vintages was eye-opening, revealing, inspiring and in many cases, quite delicious.
The conditions in 1990, for example, were colder than normal in December. These cooler temperatures carried over into early spring and caused damage to the new buds, which eventually led to short crops. Despite the low quantity of fruit, the resulting quality was high and producers felt that the wines were good to excellent. As I sampled Eyrie Vineyards 1990 Reserve Pinot Noir, I agreed. I found it to be bright and lively with notes of stewed rhubarb, fig, dried rose petals and orange peel. The wine was elegant on the palate with a little spice and tea on the finish. The 1990 is still showing remarkably well, which is an encouraging sign for the future of vintage-aged Oregon Pinots.
Though the year 1996 was characterized by rains late in the season, its timing didn’t have a dramatic effect on the already-ripe grapes. The Oregon rains did create lower than normal yields, but due to attentive vineyard practices by savvy vineyard managers, winemakers produced wines that showed richness, texture and weight. In my view, the wines from that year are still characterized by richness and an irresistible balance of fruit notes, as well as secondary earth, herb, savory spice and flower characters in the finish.
1997 was considered the last of the rainy years for Oregon wines. July rains provided moisture and nutrients to many of the thirsty vineyards, but late rains during harvest encouraged many producers to thin their crops in order to increase quality and reduce mold. Although in some cases this led to under-ripe qualities in the finished wines, attentive producers were still able to make great wines. As I tasted the 1997 Ken Wright Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir, I found it showed pretty notes of dried cherry, dried herbs and rose petals, sweet pipe tobacco and dried plum with an ethereal but still showy lightness to the palate.
Upon release, the 1998 Oregon wines were considered to be a triumph. 1998 was a warm leading to hot year with cooler weather early in the growing season that resulted in lower crop yields. A warm spike at harvest helped the grapes achieve full ripeness and created deeply extracted, tannic, rich and muscular wines that still seemed to have some time to develop in bottle. As I tasted the 1998 wines, I noticed they still expressed a hint of that heat on the nose with bright fruits and impressive continued aging potential. Comparisons have been drawn between 1998 and 2008 in that both vintages saw a warm kick right at harvest that elevated flavors, deepened the colors and made the wines quite drinkable early on while still maintaining acids and ageability. The wines we tried certainly had more time to go and I imagine that the 2008 vintage has a great deal of potential for aging into their late teens.
1999 was a cool growing season, with late bloom and a later than normal harvest. Consistent and slightly warmer weather at the end of the season helped fruit ripen and gentle winds swept away any late season moisture. Unpredictable weather loomed late in the season, making grape growers nervous. Some picked early and others waited it out with fine results. With that said, there can be some inconsistencies among wines from producer to producer, but again, good winemakers made good wine and the good ones were amazing. Bright acids and good structure still characterize the wines and I would wait a year or two more before revisiting them to give them more time to develop. Comparisons have been drawn between the 1999 vintage and 2010, and if that proves true, the 2010 wine in your cellar will be around for a long time to come and will give you pleasure every step of the way.
Sampling all of these great Pinot Noirs reminded me again that part of what’s special about Oregon wine is that no one vintage is exactly like another. Winemakers and growers need to adapt every year to the cards Mother Nature deals them, and we drinkers get something unique and brimming with personality every year because of it.