In the Spotlight

Oregon's Willamette Valley shines in the great 2015 vintage

Excerpted from the March 31, 2018, issue

The Willamette Valley is Oregon’s hotbed of Pinot Noir. The region is making some of its most impressive wines ever, and there’s heightened excitement and energy thanks to a wave of new players on the scene. A string of outstanding vintages from 2014 through 2016 has further intensified the buzz. Uncharacteristically for Oregon, Mother Nature has cooperated three years in a row, with storms and cool conditions holding off until after harvesttime.

The 2014 and 2015 vintages were both hot years overall, but with enough pockets of cool and clouds to stretch out the hang time and allow the grapes to ripen to full maturity. The two vintages are alike in many ways, not only featuring the structure and balanced acidity for which Oregon is known, but also showing more of the ripe character and plump texture found in California Pinots. Ultimately, the 2014s are more polished and opulent than the ’15s, but it’s a close race. The 2016 season, by comparison, was longer than the two previous, and early indications point to a bit more restraint and elegance in the wines.

Since our last report on the region (“Oregon’s Vintage Trifeca,” March 31, 2017), I’ve tasted more than 550 wines, the majority of them from Willamette Valley, and the bulk of those comprising its star grape, Pinot Noir. The rest are mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, the state’s leading whites. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

The impressive quality of the 2015 vintage, now dominating retail shelves, is on full display this year, with more than 60 percent of the 2015 Pinots receiving outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. Overall, I give the vintage a 95-point rating for Willamette Valley. I’ve yet to taste enough 2016 Pinots to give the younger vintage a definitive score, but I peg it preliminarily at 90 to 93 points.

The 2015 growing season started with budbreak in March, two or three weeks earlier than usual, and sunny weather prevailed throughout spring, allowing for a good bloom and grape set. Summer was hot. Growers were concerned when rain arrived at the end of August, but it simply refreshed the vines and the drought-ridden soil. September weather was some of the coolest on record.

“2015 was one of the warmest [years] in our industry’s history,” says winemaker Ken Wright. “Our only—and best—approach was to leave as much crop as was reasonable to increase the work the plant was required to perform so that maturity was delayed, hang time was increased and complexity was preserved.”

Summer heat shut down the vines, according to Lavinea winemaker Isabelle Meunier. That halted ripening and helped the grapes weather the rain. “That cool September,” adds Big Table Farm winemaker Brian Marcy, “gave us the opportunity to make picking decisions that allowed us to make the wines we wanted to make rather than were forced to make.”

“The 2015s have the tension and restraint that we want, but also the big and bold fruit,” says Drew Voit, winemaker at Harper Voit and Eminent Domaine. “It kind of splits the difference.”

At the time of publication, the top-scoring Pinot Noirs in 2015 came from Mike Etzel and his team at Beaux Frères. Harvested from the winery’s 24-acre estate vineyard, the Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2015 (95 points, $95) has impressive presence and polish, with a multilayered core wrapped in rich, expressive blueberry and cherry flavors and accented by savory spice and espresso details. The Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Upper Terrace 2015 (95, $110) hails from the estate’s highest vineyard section, first planted in 2000. It’s a dynamic wine, with beguiling rose petal and violet aromas, accented by dark plum and blueberry notes and espresso and smoky spice details.

No mention of the 2015 Oregon Pinots can pass without a nod to winemaker Patricia “Patty” Green, who died in an accident in November 2017, just as she was making some of the best wines of her career. The Patricia Green Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge Etzel Block 2015 (94, $60) is a fine example: It’s an alluring red with a structured core and rich notes of raspberry, rose petal, dark tea and sandalwood that glide toward the polished finish.

When it comes to value, vintages seldom get better for Oregon than 2015. Not only was quality good overall, it was a big crop, allowing high-volume producers to make moderately priced wines.

Senior editor Tim Fish is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Oregon.

For the complete Oregon Pinot Noir tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “In the Spotlight,” in our online magazine archives.