Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has an excellent reputation among fine wine collectors. These wines are even compared to Burgundy’s in terms of their flavor profile. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson told the Los Angeles Times that producer Bergström makes some of her favorite Oregonian Pinot Noir in part because it reminds her of fine Burgundy. “I love Bergström’s wines because they are an exciting expression of what Oregon has to offer,” she says. “Josh Bergström trained in Burgundy, so they have a purity and a lack of palate-numbing sweetness too.” The best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages achieve this purity and freshness when the weather conditions in the valley are just right. Too much or too little rain and sunshine can significantly reduce the quality of the vintage as a whole.
What Makes a Great Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Vintage?
The Willamette Valley is a large American Viticultural Area (AVA) located in western Oregon. The valley stretches from the Columbia River in the north to Eugene in the central part of the state–a total of 5,200 square miles. The AVA has a clement maritime climate that’s favorable for growing Pinot Noir grapes; the mild weather conditions allow the grapes to grow slowly and steadily from the spring through early fall. Winter and spring in this area are generally cool and wet, but very rarely freezing. Unlike Burgundy, Oregon gets few hailstorms in the spring so the grapes usually bud right on time. Oregon Pinot Noir thrives under these cool conditions and develops great acidity as a result.
Pinot Noir wines from the Willamette Valley rarely taste as bold or jammy as those made in warm regions of California like Napa Valley.
Summers in the Willamette Valley are quite warm and there is very little rain during the peak summer months. Under these conditions, the grapes ripen slowly and develop deeply concentrated flavors. As an added benefit, the valley’s volcanic soils store a great deal of water during the rainy spring months, so that even during very hot, dry summers, the vines still have access to water deep underground. Diurnal temperature variations in the valley also increase the grapes’ acidity and make their flavors more complex. As a result, Pinot Noir wines from the Willamette Valley rarely taste as bold or jammy as those made in warm regions of California like Napa Valley. These wines are consistently elegant, fresh, and lively.
The best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages come from years when the weather was predictable and not too extreme. If the valley receives too much rain in the spring or has unexpected summer showers late in the growing season, the grapes may not ripen properly. Climate change has also impacted this region in recent years by contributing to unusually warm weather. If one of these hot spells is too prolonged, the grapes will shrivel on the vine and develop too much sugar. The result is a high-alcohol wine that lacks balance and refinement.
If you’re looking to invest in only the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages, seek out wines from years when the spring was wet and cool, the summer was warm and dry, and the harvest season had a mix of sunny and rainy days. To guide you to the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages, we’ve put together a list of 11 vintages that we believe represent the cream of the crop.
Ranking the Best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Vintages
According to vintage scores from Wine Advocate, the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages are:
- 2016 (93 points): Following two particularly hot years, the 2016 growing season was much cooler, particularly during summer nights. These wines are acidic and fresh with superb complexity. The 2016 Beaux Frères The Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir is particularly delicious.
- 2014 (93 points): The weather was warmer than usual this year, but there were very few extreme heat waves. Producers that harvested early made wines that are powerful yet still elegant. It’s a bolder Oregon Pinot Noir, to be sure. If you’re looking for a high-quality bottle from this year, consider 2014 Domaine Serene Grace Vineyard Pinot Noir.
- 2012 (92 points): This vintage is similar to the 2014 in that the weather was slightly warmer than normal; however, 2012 wines are more acidic than 2014 ones and aren’t as concentrated. The wines are well-structured and some have excellent aging potential. The 2012 Chapter 24 Last Chapter Pinot Noir is a great representation of this vintage.
- 2011 (90 points): The weather was a bit too cool and damp throughout the summer this year, leading to a very late harvest. As a result of the cool conditions, many of these wines were lean and austere in their youth, but with time they’ve become complex and flavorful. The 2011 vintage is now considered one of the best of the decade for the valley.
- 2008 (94 points): Like the 2011, the 2008 vintage was cool and damp, resulting in late bud break. The grapes were underripe for many weeks in the fall, but an unexpectedly warm October allowed the fruit to ripen fully. The resulting wine is harmonious, complex, and very lively. It’s the top-rated vintage of the past few decades, according to Wine Advocate.
- 2006 (91 points): The weather was optimal this year. Conditions were slightly drier than usual, giving the grapes greater sugar concentration which was balanced out by moderate acidity. It’s an intense and well-structured Pinot Noir vintage. We recommend trying 2006 ROCO Private Stash Pinot Noir.
- 2002 (92 points): The quality of 2002 Pinot Noir depends on when the grapes were harvested. Dry conditions caused the grapes to raisin a bit on the vine, and producers that harvested early made wines that taste just slightly overripe. Patient producers that waited for late harvest rain finally received it in mid-October. Their wines are more balanced and have higher acidity levels.
- 1999 (92 points): Harvest dates also played a role in wine quality in 1999. The weather was exceptionally cool and winemakers were worried whether the grapes would ripen at all. Grapes that were harvested too early produced very lean wines, but producers that waited as late as early November to harvest managed to craft wines that are very flavorful. The higher acidity of wines from this year made 1999 one of the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages for long-term aging.
- 1994 (92 points): These wines aren’t as age-worthy as the 1999 vintage because acidity was fairly low across the valley. Warm weather produced intense, powerful wines that were mostly best drunk young. The ones that have stood the test of time are higher in acidity and fascinating to drink.
- 1990 (90 points): The spring and summer of the 1990 season were cool, but fall was warm and dry. Yields were lower than usual due to the cooler conditions early in the season, but some of the best wines from this year are still drinking well and taste quite refined.
- 1983 (90 points): This was the first year that Willamette Valley was officially established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). For this reason, it’s a historic and collectible vintage. It’s also fairly high in quality, being well-balanced and elegant with moderate acidity. This vintage is very difficult to find on the secondary market.
As with wine from any region, not all collectors will enjoy the same vintages. Wine enthusiasts that prefer a bolder Willamette Valley Pinot Noir will likely enjoy the 2014, 2012, 2006, 2002, and 1994 vintages, because they are intense and concentrated in flavor. If you like a more elegant Pinot Noir or want to drink a wine that better represents the classic light-bodied Willamette Valley style, then you’ll want to try the 2016, 2011, 2008, 1999, 1990, and 1983 vintages.
When Should You Drink or Sell These Vintages?
Some of the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages still have many years ahead of them before they reach maturity, while others are already approaching or past their peak. These are the vintages we recommend drinking or selling right now:
The 2006 and 1999 vintages also reached peak maturity fairly early. The best wines of these vintages are still drinking well, but you should consider opening them or selling them soon, as they may not keep much longer. The 2002 vintage is another year that may be past its peak already, especially if the grapes were harvested early. Wines made using grapes that were harvested later may still have a few years before they’re past their peak.
A bottle of 1983 Pinot Noir from an iconic Willamette Valley producer makes an excellent trophy wine or can be sold on the secondary market.
Wines that may be too old include the 1990 and 1983 vintages. If they have been kept under perfect storage conditions and come from a reputable producer, then they may still be worth drinking or selling. The 1983 vintage is collectible regardless of the condition of the wine inside due to its historical significance. A bottle of 1983 Pinot Noir from an iconic Willamette Valley producer makes an excellent trophy wine or can be sold on the secondary market.
Meanwhile, the vintages below have been much slower to mature, either because they are more tannic or more acidic. We recommend keeping these for a few more years:
While the wines we’ve discussed in this post are the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vintages according to Wine Advocate and other experts, this list is not comprehensive. Many other fine Oregon Pinot Noir vintages are worth your time, especially those from producers with excellent reputations on the fine wine market. Some of the best producers in this area include Beaux Frères, Bergström, Domaine Serene, and Chapter 24. All of these producers are dedicated to crafting fine wines that represent the Willamette Valley terroir at its best and any of their bottles will make excellent additions to your collection.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.
Image source: Jason Weaver [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]