Generally speaking, when you’re attending a Pinot Noir masterclass-style tasting hosted by one of a wine region’s most historically significant properties, it’s not considered good form to giggle like an eight year-old girl.
Which, of course, didn’t stop me from doing it.
The trouble was, I just found the irony so funny, it was like being back in my Oblate grade school church, the nuns patrolling the church aisles, my buddies and I joking around and trying hard to suppress laughter that would most certainly get us into major trouble. Which just makes it funnier.
Here’s the thing: when you’re tasting through a retrospective of the Pinots representing those produced by our host – The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Noir – in a masterclass session that’s supposed to highlight vintage variation, it’s just funny. Not that there isn’t vintage variation – there is, for sure, vintage variation in Eyrie’s Pinot. It’s just that when the style is (thankfully) one of the entire wine world’s most consistent, the irony of trying to highlight that variation is… well, it’s funny. So, I was giggling. Don’t judge me (I know, it’s probably already too late).
Anyway, I now probably owe one to second generation vintner Jason Lett (who hosted that masterclass), so let’s talk about how interesting these Pinots were.
Eyrie Vineyards is famous for establishing plantings of Pinot Noir in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the first place (so to some Pinot lovers, I was on sacred ground… which just made the whole thing even funnier… hey, I once laughed while at the front of a Communion line, so this disrespecting-sacred-ground stuff is familiar to me). Named for a red-tailed hawk’s nest located in the fir trees that would become their vineyards, and dooming themselves to a lifetime of mispronunciation, Eyrie is where this Oregon Pinot thang all got started, when Jason Lett’s father David planted there in 1966.
David Lett had been looking for suitable Pinot spots all over the globe, including New Zealand, the north coast of Portugal, and humble ol’ Oregon. After settling in Silverton (too cool and wet) and Corvallis (too hot), he spent his spare time during work drives (he was a college textbooks salesman) stopping his car at promising spots and digging holes looking for the right Pinot soils. Eventually, he found Eyrie’s current location, and American Pinot-making history-making was set in motion.
Lett had a good eye for dirt, apparently. Eryie’s vineyards, in view of Mont Hood, sit on volcanic soils left over from the largest continuous lava flow in the world (“it’s the size of Great Britain,” Jason Lett told me), that decomposed into red volcanic clay. The prehistoric disaster of the Missoula Floods brought in granitic elements, as well (Lett: “that stuff is incredibly thick!”). Pinot seems to like it. Part of the reason why Eyrie’s Pinot is so consistent through decades of production is that they’ve more-or-less farmed the same way for a long time. “We’ve always been organic,” according to Lett, “before there was such a thing. We’ve never used pesticides. There’s a really diverse plant ecology growing between the vines.” There’s no irrigation, and beyond mowing, there’s no tilling in the vineyards, either.
During my visit, Lett pointed out some bare spots in the vineyard. “That’s phylloxera,” he said. The vines aren’t grafted, but the pest is moving slowly, and Eyrie is in the process of figuring out which vine stocks will make up any new mother plantings needed for the future. Based on our tasting, I’m really hoping that works out.
Some of the barrels are “decades old,” having been in the winemaking rotation since the 1970s, which Lett thinks gives a very slow oxidation rate to the developing wines. “That the thing with doing too much in the winery,” Lett mused; “it’s not too much until it’s too much, and then it’s too late.”
The results: Eyrie Pinots are so consistently pure that you have to lean in really close and let them whisper to you, on their own time. When bombastic Pinot Noir was all the rage, Eyrie basically changed… nothing. The result was a quiet resistance, a passive protest to Pinot going big, an elegant deliverance from what became the norm. Now, there are great Pinots that are bombastic spectacles of a wine, and there are great Pinots that are lilting, graceful figures of a wine; Lett’s are in the latter category.
The consistency among the wines we tasted was astounding, as was the length of their finishes. Let’s go in reverse order, just for (additional) giggles:
1990 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve (Willamette Valley)
The first thing I noticed about this wine (apart from the striking brown color) was its purity, its lightness, and then its soft, earthy “edges.” Leather wrapped around tart fruits, buffeted by a sense of self-confidence and understated grace. Okay, and a bowl full of toasted nuts, too. It’s gorgeous, and just about everything you’d want Pinot to be after a quarter of a century. Have fun trying to find a bottle.
2009 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve (Willamette Valley)
Bright red berry fruits are still hanging out and enjoying themselves here, helping themselves to tea. Minerals abound, as does an elegant air. I kept writing “pure” in my tasting notes. The wine is, simply, lovely, and could charm an entire room with its floral smile and effortlessness.
2010 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve (Willamette Valley)
The spice is more prominent right now on this vintage (though you’ll find it, to some degree, on nearly all of these Pinots). It’s also a slightly fruitier take on the signature Eyrie “serious litheness.” It still has quite a bit of structural bite to it, both in its acidity and its underlying tannins.
2011 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve (Willamette Valley)
Spicy. And tight! Earth, tea, brambly red berries, vibrancy… it’s light and focused, elegant and proper almost to the point of austerity. It is in no way ready to be consumed yet, and makes no bones about letting you know how it feels on the matter. But still… it’s full of promise and pedigree.
2012 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve (Willamette Valley)
Do you like laurel and pepper? Well, then… prepare to have your sinuses rocked, my friend. Tight as a World War II field tourniquet, this unfolds gradually. Eventually, you’ll smell wet rocks, dried flowers, and red berries; and you’ll taste a long, pithy, exquisitely balanced finish. But only when it’s ready, not when you’re ready.