Beaux Frères Pinot Noirs Stand the Test of Time

By seeking balanced wines, Mike Etzel has found success in both cool and warm vintages

From the Feb. 29, 2016, issue

Mike Etzel remembers the vintages that made him rethink the way he produced Pinot Noir at his Willamette Valley winery, Beaux Frères. Unsatisfied with the wines from 1995, 1996 and 1997, he decided to pursue versions that showed a lighter touch.

“We got the extraction with those vintages, but we also got harshness and tannins,” Etzel said, explaining the impetus for the stylistic shift. But although he has been pleased with the wines he’s made in the new style, a question that remained unanswered was whether the newer Pinot Noirs would age as well as their predecessors.

This past fall, Etzel put that concern to the test with a vertical tasting that not only compared the old approach with the new, but prompted a larger question: Do cool-vintage Pinot Noirs age differently, for the better or the worse, than Pinots from warmer years, at least when it comes to the wines of Beaux Frères?

At the fall tasting, all of the Beaux Frères Pinots were aging well, whatever the weather conditions of their vintage and regardless of the winemaking approach. As he looked back, Etzel said he realized that while his early-’90s wines bloomed in the cellar, they were often too big and clunky in their youth. “Young winemakers tend to make powerful wines,” he said. “I just got tired of high alcohol and overextraction.”

The stylistic shift was a gradual evolution, made over several vintages. Etzel wanted more elegance in the Pinots without sacrificing richness and complexity. Eventually, he found a combination of viticulture and winemaking that gave him the results he desired.

One of the first things he did was adjust the size of the crop to the conditions of the vintage, after years of chasing a specific target. He also switched to native yeast fermentation and eliminated enzyme additives that boost color, aroma and intensity. Significantly, he dialed back the use of heavily toasted French oak in the cellar.

As he tasted through the vertical, Etzel was pleased. “I was in search of balance,” he said. “When a wine gets extremely extracted, it loses a sense of place. I’m in search of a sense of place and vintage.”

In the winemaker’s opinion, the 2007, from a cool year, was showing the best, and he was surprised by the 2006.

“[During the tasting,] I was pleased with vintages I was somewhat jaded upon, like 2006,” he said. That was a hot vintage, but the wine is maturing into a sleek and generous red in the bottle. The 1994 was disappointing for Etzel: “Some claim it was the greatest vintage ever made of Beaux Frères,” he said. “But it’s not my style.”

“What I got from this tasting is that I feel we have moved in the right direction,” Etzel said. “I respect the old style with the smoky wood, and I understand people really appreciate that style, but I like where we’re going better.”