Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Does Oregon Pinot Noir improve with age?

Does Oregon Pinot Noir improve with age?

Luisa Ponzi just tasted 35 vintages of her family's wines, and the evidence is incomplete. The climate may have been perfectly Burgundian 35 years ago, but back then not many Oregonians knew what they were doing.

Ponzi's father Dick was one of the first to plant Pinot in the beaver state, founding his estate vineyard in 1970, five years after David Lett planted the state's first Pinot at Eyrie Vineyards.

The estate vineyard he chose didn't turn out to be great Pinot Noir terroir; there's more Pinot Gris there now. Most of the best Pinot Noir vineyards in Oregon are now at higher elevation. But that wasn't what Dick and Nancy Ponzi were looking for.

"They were looking for a nice piece of property with good soil that wasn't too far from Portland," Luisa Ponzi said. "They were raising a family and they wanted to be part of the cultural scene, even though there were maybe three restaurants in Portland at the time. And they thought Portland was where they would sell the wine."

Dick Ponzi, an engineer, had no winemaking background. He absorbed some lessons from visiting Burgundy, but in the early days he also did things his daughter chuckles at now, mostly involving beating up the grapes in the winery. "It wasn't until the '90s that they figured out gentle handling, that Pinot couldn't be handled like Cabernet," Luisa says.

However, in the vineyard Dick Ponzi was way ahead of his time. He farmed organically and Ponzi Vineyards still only buys fruit from growers who are organic or certified sustainable. He never sprayed anything other than sulfur, instead using his three kids as field hands.

"There was a lot of hoeing when I was young," Luisa said, in a quote that sounds even better out of context.

Ponzi Vineyards is unusual in that it's a European-style family winery, albeit only in the second generation. Just as in Burgundy, one kid stepped up to learn winemaking, and that was Luisa. Her brother Michel is director of operations; her sister Maria is director of sales and marketing. Luisa is the one with the purple hands.

Moreover, she learned winemaking the Burgundy way, studying at the technical school in Beaune and working as a harvest hand in Burgundy and Italy.

She came back to Oregon in '93 and Dick Ponzi put her in charge right away. She tried different oak barrels and switched to native yeast. She experimented with temperature control -- Dick Ponzi had long used none.

"I did a lot of experiments he'd done," Luisa says. "He'd walk by and roll his eyes. He must have thought, 'You gotta do it.' I thought I had to change the world, but I came to find out he was doing things pretty well."

One big difference she made is picking the grapes riper, though not actually later. Because of global warming, Pinot ripens in Oregon more than a month before it did in the 1970s, Luisa says. Even though he was a fanatic about picking early to maintain acidity, Dick Ponzi often picked in late October. Luisa gets higher sugar levels now in mid September.

Luisa tasted the 35 vintages of Ponzi Pinot Noir with some fellow Oregon winemakers; a week later she opened some of the best wines from that tasting for journalists. She included only two of Dick Ponzi's wines: a 1979 and a 1988. She said that while some of the others were pleasant, they tasted more like old wine than mature Pinot Noir.

I would say that was true of the 1979 Ponzi Oregon Pinot Noir, the first Ponzi wine mentioned in the New York Times. But I liked the 1988 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir a lot. It had a complex nose that smelled like warm soil with cherry and some smoked meat, good cherry fruit and nice chewy tannins that gave it structure. It may be an aberration, but it was drinking very well after 22 years, and seemed as if it would last another few.

Luisa Ponzi's first two wines at the helm, the 1993 and 1994 Ponzi Reserve Pinot Noirs, were both drinking very well. The '93 had lovely cranberry and cherry fruit, notes of coffee and rose petal, and a very long finish. The '94 was slightly bigger bodied but its elegant tannins, ripe fruit, and baking spice notes made it one of the best wines of the evening.

My favorite wine of the night was the 1998 Ponzi Abetina Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. This vineyard is an important element in Ponzi's Reserve Pinot Noir and is only made as a single-vineyard bottling in certain vintages. It's intense, with blueberry and cherry fruit and a strong root-beer note, as well as a spicy finish. I understood the other two vineyards from the Reserve better by their absence from this wine, because I tasted some cranberry notes in every wine but this one.

Luisa Ponzi has built a new winery with modern temperature controls, she now picks later to get riper fruit, and she drops fruit to get lower crop levels. I wouldn't say the result is exactly a New World style; these Pinots are not big like many in California, but they are smooth, ripe and seamless. The rough edges are gone from the 2002, 2006 and 2007 Ponzi Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, and I wonder what that means for their eventual aging, the topic of the evening.

It's interesting to contrast the '07 Reserve against Ponzi's regular 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Autumn was so wet that Luisa Ponzi hired helicopters to fly above the vines to dry them. The regular '07 tastes a little underripe to me, whereas the '07 Reserve is rich and ripe with fruit tending to blueberry; a much easier wine to enjoy, but lacking a bit in complexity. Somewhere in between the two wines might be the perfect Pinot.

A big advantage that Ponzi has over many wineries is that because it is family owned, Luisa has the rest of her winemaking life to experiment. She poured a nice 2009 Arneis -- refreshing yellow grapefruit character -- about which she says, "I've been making it for 17 years and I'm just figuring it out."

That was true of Oregon Pinot Noir until recently, and it's fair to say that when compared to Burgundy, it's still true. Keep in mind that the oldest vines in the state are only about 45 years old.

I didn't leave the tasting convinced one way or the other about the ageworthiness of Oregon Pinots. The '93 and '94 are good harbingers, but Ponzi's style has changed since then, and I believe that is true of many Oregon wineries.

One also has to ask whether it matters if Oregon Pinot improves with age, as most people today are struggling with the corkscrew on the way home from the store (unless they've bought one of Ponzi's screwcapped wines.) The '88, '93, '94 and '98 wines I tasted all showed the benefit of aging, but the many missing vintages hinted at the pitfalls.

1 comment:

David Frick said...

Nice article; I can imagine many missing or under-performing vintages in a climate where everything can go pear-shaped with a good pre-harvest rain.

I'm not one who questions the science of global warming (at least in terms of reliable data), but I do question whether picking Pinot Noir a month earlier has more to do with reduced yields, virus-free Dijon clones, maturity advancing rootstocks, better (warmer) site selection, changes in trellis design, altered viticultural techniques or some combination thereof?